As a rule, movies in which a main character is diagnosed with cancer are dramas; nobody really wants to laugh too hard and long when Death sticks his ugly nose into the business of the living. Sure, the classic weeper Terms of Endearment tried to lighten the mood by adding a devilish Jack Nicholson character who wasn’t in the book, but he’s not what you remember about the film. What you remember is Debra Winger saying goodbye to her little boys and Shirley MacLaine screaming for morphine and how you had to sit in the theater until the end credits were over because you were embarrassed that your eyes were so red from weeping.
There’s no guarantee the utterly unique 50/50 won’t induce a tear or two, but that’s not the main aim of this fresh and bracing comedy. 50/50 is crude and funny, and it demands that you laugh. And you will.
Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), the film focuses on Adam, a 27-year-old public radio employee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is stunned to discover the sore back that has been plaguing him is a massive spinal tumor. A mild-mannered guy who doesn’t drink or smoke, Adam hasn’t really been sick before - he’s too young - and so he has no relationship with the doctor diagnosing him. He’s confused, scared and completely at sea among the impersonal medical personnel telling him what he needs to do next.
But he’s also a guy, so he tries to keep his fear buried. He resists telling his mother (Anjelica Huston) for reasons he can’t truly explain; his artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) promises to be supportive but quickly is anything but; his hospital-provided therapist (Anna Kendrick) has good intentions but is deeply inexperienced. Younger even than Adam, she doesn’t even know how to pat his hand with encouragement (a running joke that never loses its humor).
What Adam does have, however, is his shaggy best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a good-time guy who’s just as hapless as Adam at making sense of this reality but determined to keep up a good stream of chatter about it simply because he doesn’t know what else to say. When Adam tells Kyle the odds of his survival are 50/50, Kyle refuses to look on the bleak side: “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds,” he points out. He decides Adam’s condition may even help them pick up girls, and he’s right. The sad irony is that Adam is truly too sick to do much about it when they do.
The excellent Gordon-Levitt has swiftly become a major actor of his young generation; (500) Days of Summer showed off his hipster romantic comedy chops, and Inception brought out the best of the action hero within. Playing the conflicted Adam requires more, though, as he must reflect all sorts of fleeting emotions, and he passes this test so well you’ll wonder when his first Oscar nomination will come.
The hilarious Rogen, who also produces, is basically playing himself here, in the best possible way: 50/50 was written by his pal Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with cancer in his 20s. That explains why the film is ripe with the unglamorous little truths that make up a patient’s existence: the dizzying platitudes offered by well-meaning but clumsy friends; the dull hours whiled away in chemotherapy; the physical exhaustion that always threatens to overwhelm; the inevitable descents into hopelessness despite most cheerful of attitudes. And yet the film - presumably like Reiser and Rogen did when faced with this situation - stubbornly refuses to lose its sense of humor. The scene in which Kyle confronts the cheating Rachaele in front of a clearly weakening Adam is an instant, profane classic. Kyle may have no idea how to talk to his buddy about the possibility he might die, but full of fury and righteousness, he can damn well verbally beat down the faithless woman breaking Adam’s heart at the worst possible time.
Scenes like that one indicate that 50/50’s agenda isn’t to shed light on the hardship of battling illness. It’s about celebrating the bonds of friendship - however immature those friends might be - and how the power of laughter really may be the best medicine.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Seth Rogen are shown in a scene from "50/50." Photo:AP