When you read the words ‘movie about cancer’ you don’t normally think uplifting. And that’s what surprised me about 50/50. I was initially apprehensive about watching it because of the content but this film and its characters soon won me over. It’s a balance of comedy and drama that the narrative gets right more often than not, making it one of the best films of 2011 – definitely one of the better, non-melodramatic movies I’ve seen about a terminal illness.
The story is fairly straightforward and the plot basic, this is a character-centric piece that ultimately banks on its actors and the audience’s involvement with the main characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam Lerner, a 26 year old who suddenly finds his routine life turned upside down after a diagnosis of spinal cancer, a cancer that gives him a 50/50 shot at surviving it. He is the kind of guy that stops at a red signal even when there are no cars in sight, the kind that has always played by the rules – no smoking, no drinking and regular recycling. Seth Rogen plays his skirt-chasing best friend, Bryce Dallas Howard his self-obsessed artist girlfriend and Anna Kendrick is the inexperienced therapist who helps Adam deal with his new situation. The script written by Will Reiser (incidentally, one of Rogen’s best buddies in real life) draws its story from his own experiences with the same cancer, and it feels very real because of this first-hand input.
An observation to be raised at this point is that the film isn’t about the disease, but about how Adam learns to deal with the cancer in his own stumbling way. Luckily, the film does that in such a way that it becomes everyone’s story, the struggle of every patient going through a terminal illness. JGL as Adam pulls off a wonderful, subtle, measured performance and is the heart and soul of the film as he goes through all the phases of coming to terms with the fact that he might die. His character is extremely likeable, even when he’s being a bit of a jerk and it’s this instant emotional investment that makes the film such a resonating experience. You want the best for him even as your heart breaks watching him seek reassurance from his mother (a much under-used Angelica Houston) minutes before the surgery.
Derived from personal experiences, it all feels very real, even if that adds a certain disjointed feel to some of the scenes. The film is very organic, full of one-on-one character interactions and one of its strengths is the refusal to poke fun at the disease. Instead it focuses on very human emotions – the silly, funny, light-hearted moments as well as those where you struggle to hold it together. This is where Seth Rogen does a great job at creating the crux relationship of the narrative. On the surface, his character is similar to every other loud character you’ve seen him play. And yet there are surprising depths that convert him from simply a comic foil to a true bro unsure of how to help the one person who means most to him through the most difficult moments of his life. Especially in the emotional scenes, his real-life experience of having supported Will Reiser is clearly evident, and it’s an unexpectedly satisfying layer to the story.
This brings me to some things that could have been more satisfying. There are scenes, especially towards the last part of the film, which have a tendency towards the more standard lump-in-your-throat cliché fare. They are well-written, well-acted and don’t really feel out of place considering our emotional investment with Adam, but considering the tone of the rest of the film, it would have been great to see them continue with a subtler form of emotion. Similarly, I’d have loved another layer to the character of Adam’s girlfriend, who comes off the worst among the other two female characters. She is deliciously unlikeable but I’d have preferred a character a bit more rounded. Since I don’t wish to resort to spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, I cannot elaborate more on that or the other side narrative thread and relationship that could have had more time devoted to show its careful, delicate evolution.
But at the end of the day, it’s wonderfully understated, fresh, innovative, quietly heartfelt and surprisingly funny.