Tragedy makes fools of us. Whether we wish to ease the tension or simply become unraveled in the chaos of the unthinkable, we all become jesters in the face of it. Think back to any really horrible time in your life – the death of a loved one, the loss of a house or a job, a really tough breakup – and you’re bound to remember a few moments that were just plain embarrassingly goofy.
This is the comic well from which 50/50 draws, a potent cocktail of pain and unpredictable joy that feels more genuine than most films about tragedy ever will (perhaps because screenwriter Will Reiser based it on his own life; perhaps because it’s so good). It’s a film that captures with breathtaking ease the inherent madness of living with a deadly illness. It’s about laughing through the pain, about how to let the pain go, and how to make as many dirty jokes as possible along the way.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a nice life. He has a good job at a Seattle Public Radio station, he’s got a gorgeous girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is always willing to indulge his fear of driving by chauffeuring him about town. When persistent back pain sends him to the doctor, Adam finds that he’s been stricken with a very rare form of cancer at the age of 27. He will begin chemotherapy and attempt to shrink the tumor clinging to his spine, but first he has to tell his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and begin taking meetings with a student therapist (Anna Kendrick) working on her doctorate and trying very hard not to screw up.
The film charts the course of several months as Adam takes his course of chemo, deals with the side effects, shaves his head, has relationship troubles, gets a dog, makes some new cancer patient friends and simply tries to deal with the emotional and physical strain of it all.
At times he feels light-hearted, optimistic, even going so far as to play along with Kyle’s scheme to use his new bald head to help get girls. At other times a kind of numbness falls over him. He realizes his chances are slim (50/50, get it?) and that there might not be any point in attempting to forge new connections in his life if he’s just going to sever them with his own death.
It’s in this dichotomy that 50/50 finds its greatest strength. Films about dealing with illness are too often so message packed that even the sick people in the audience find them kitschy and self-indulgent. This is not one of those films. This film does not attempt to dissect the cancer experience as a psychological or spiritual or even philosophical condition. Nor does it seek to portray life with a deadly disease as a kind of Terms of Endearment journey to inner peace. This is a film about how hard it is, and about how in the midst of all that hardship you can find a way to survive. It never preaches about it, never forces it. It just is.
Levitt gives the performance of his young career, and he’s had plenty of great roles before. Adam is not an inspirational figure by nature. He’s just a guy who caught a tough break and has to face the fact that he might die. There are no grand speeches, no declarations of turning over a new leaf or great epiphanies about the nature of life. There’s just a guy struggling, but Levitt’s natural and unadorned performance is so genuine and so committed that the lack of loftiness in his story doesn’t matter. Rogen was tailor-made to play the goofball best friend, and he shines in the role once again here, but he also manages to find something emotional in all that goofiness that masks the fear for his friend. Without weeping or pontificating, Kyle manages to become warm. Kendrick also shines as a young student who, unpredictably and somewhat frighteningly, faces counseling someone not much older than herself on how to deal with a poisonous mass inside their own body. She is vulnerable and funny and easy to fall in love with, and she continues to declare herself as a rising talent.
It’s intentional that 50/50 is an unembellished account of illness. It’s meant to be that way. It never attempts to bring you to the kind of seize the day moment that so many films about death do. It’s a comedy, after all, and comedy is the great life-affirming thing that happens even when we’re all at rock bottom. There are times in this film when you laugh in spite of yourself, when even the gloomy moments spark some inner memory of your own vulnerability to the awkward insanity of the hospital room and the friend whose hair is falling out. It feels like maybe you shouldn’t, but you laugh anyway, and that’s the point. It’s the great thing about comedy. Even at our very lowest, we can rise with a laugh.