Putting the words 'cancer' and 'comedy' together doesn't really make sense on paper, unless it's part of some scathing, hugely irreverent satire on the latest episode of South Park. As a subject matter/plot device, it's easy for cancer to transform narratives into either the relentlessly depressive, or the shamelessly manipulative. As far as comedy goes, the notion that the genre could play host to a story about such a disease makes us recoil; it makes us wonder if the resulting film will somehow exploit or mishandle the material to even grosser effect. While I have no doubt that some such film either exists or will exists, the makers of 50/50 can rest assured that their film is both tasteful and honest, all while succeeding at both its dramatic and comedic moments.
After a brief opening where we see Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) taking his morning run, Jonathan Levine's film doesn't waste much time cutting to the chase: Adam has cancer in the form of a malignant tumor in his lower back. We know barely anything about Adam save that he has an artists girlfriend named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and that his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) drives him to work because he never learned how. Other than that, we don't get to discover Adam's character until we see him go through the various stages of treatment. It's a structure that could have led 50/50 to fail; without knowing much about him before, we're left to care for him strictly out of his situation, and not out of who he is as a person.
Yet somehow director Jonathan Levine and his marvelous cast pull it off. Rather than try and turn the film into and all-out comedy, or some sort of rauch fest a la Superbad, Levine and company navigate the potential minefield that 50/50 presents effortlessly, never once coming to an uncomfortable point in their execution of the material. Whether scenes are dramatic, comedic, or switch between the two, it all flows together fluidly, making the film a comfortable viewing experience, despite its look at such a terrible disease. This isn't to say that the film glosses over Adam's struggle. But, instead of beating us over the head with shots of Adam's chemo-ridden body, or packing every encounter between Adam and his therapist (Anna Kendrick) with tearful confessions about his life, the script gives us just enough to understand. What begins as a young man trying his best to cope with terrible circumstances, seamlessly evolves into a graceful look at the protagonist figuring out how to live his life, and how to manage his various relationships.
Apparently a fan of movie titles with the numbers 5 and 0, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in strong work as a man with a disease that's hit him far too young. From his initial denial, to his forced calmness, to his eventual realization that he very well might die, Gordon-Levitt handles every facet with great skill, and his chemistry with the supporting cast works on all fronts. Those around Adam built as characters simply via their reactions to his situation, but the cast makes them all work. The stand-out of the supporting players is a toss-up between Anjelica Huston (as Adam's clingy mother) and Kendrick. The former's character is a bit of a smother mother, but the script doesn't dismiss her and assume that Adam's initial attitude towards her is 100% justified. Kendrick, in a more prominent role, takes a character who could have been nothing but a sounding board for Adam, and makes her a standalone character. There aren't any scenes oriented around her role, but Kendrick and the script bring out just enough in her interactions with Gordon-Levitt to give us a sense of who she is. Seth Rogen, as Adam's friend Kyle, while still something of a goof-off/schlub, reins it in here, delivering one of his more measured performances, if not his most measured, to date.
The lone exception from the cast is Dallas Howard, or rather, her character. It's not that the actress herself misses the mark, but the script makes her an antagonist when it doesn't really need to. All this is good for is to set up another potential relationship, and really, isn't the cancer a big enough "villain?" This one small issue aside, however, the characters are nicely drawn, and help the film's resolution (along with the tears it inspires) feel earned. Special mention should also go to Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as older patients who befriend Adam in chemotherapy; their roles are small, but every scene the pair have is vital to understanding Adam's evolution over the course of the film. It's characters like these, along with Adam himself, that make the film's sense of humor work so well.
On the technical front there's not much worth mentioning, although there is some nice visual work in a scene where Adam strolls out of a treatment session high on pot. The closest to a standout are the musical contributions from Michael Giacchino (Up), which accent the film nicely when used, without ever becoming melodramatic or saccharine. Like the film itself, the score (along with the soundtrack choices) always feel tasteful. Based on the life of one of Rogen's close friends, 50/50 beautifully captures the honesty of the account. What could have so easily been uncomfortable, manipulative, is instead an exceptional look at one man facing one of life's greatest adversities.