It’s important to have a sense of humor in all things. Being able to laugh at misfortune doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re diminishing a tragedy’s importance or ignoring the feelings created by hardship. Laughter isn’t the best medicine (that would be the polio vaccine) but it’s damn useful and Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 manages to find humor in cancer by bringing together great performances and a gentle approach that manages to skillfully balance foul-mouthed dialogue alongside honest drama.
Based off screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experience with cancer (he’s now in remission), 50/50 follows Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he copes with his cancer diagnosis and tries to work through the complicated emotional baggage with the help of his horny stoner friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and his attractive therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick). On the surface, the film looks like it could be an unfunny, cloying mess, but the script wisely lets the humor and drama come about naturally rather than forcing laughs or tears.
That result largely comes from letting the lead actors play to their strengths, although with Gordon-Levitt it’s becoming difficult to tell if he has any weaknesses. He seems to have no problem moving between grizzled noir (Brick), romantic comedy ((500) Days of Summer), stylish action (Inception), and he’s the dramatic heart of 50/50. The movie wouldn’t work if Gordon-Levitt gave a dishonest performance that tried too hard to make the audience laugh and cry. He taps into Adam’s central emotion, which is fear, but we never pity the character and we want to see him make it through this overwhelming ordeal.
Rogen and Kendrick provide strong supporting work without overshadowing Gordon-Levitt or overplaying their roles. Rogen continues to perfect the Adorable Asshole character he last used in The Green Hornet. On the page, Kyle could have easily turned into an opportunistic lout who wants to ignore his friend’s diagnosis except when it can be used to pick up chicks. Rogen is simply too cuddly to hate. As for Kendrick, she’s even better in 50/50 than she was in her Oscar-nominated role in Up in the Air because this time she doesn’t drop out halfway through the movie. Kendrick does an outstanding job playing a young woman who is out of her depth but giving it her all to do right by Adam. Add in her excellent chemistry with Gordon-Levitt and I was left wondering how much longer we’ll have to wait to see her in a lead role. The only cast member who gets the short shrift is Bryce Dallas Howard who plays Adam’s girlfriend. Coupled with her performance in The Help, Howard needs to stop playing shallow, bitchy women. She doesn’t look the part and it’s beneath her to play such two-dimensional characters.
Howard’s character aside, Levine uses a light touch and lets the smart performances of his lead characters deliver the emotional impact. He doesn’t need look-at-me cinematography or a sweeping score to make the drama work and his biggest fingerprint on the film is its soundtrack. It’s not surprising that the director of The Wackness has once again made a mixtape film and if he keeps up the trend, he may find himself getting called the next Cameron Crowe (I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not). Levine usually finds the right song for the moment (especially for the ending), but there are a couple on-the-nose track choices where it may have been best to find a better music cue.
50/50 isn’t uproariously funny nor is it crushingly depressing. Levine and Reiser knew that cancer was heavy enough on its own so they took away any embellishment, and found a way to be funny without being flippant and heartwarming without being sappy.