Based on real experiences from the life of writer and cancer survivor Will Reiser, 50/50 is a poignant, funny movie that blends comedy with the most serious kind of subject matter. I’d imagine it’s difficult to bring humor into a story about a guy getting cancer, but with a competent script, solid actors well-suited for both comedy and drama, and some reserved directing from Jonathan Levine, the filmmakers accomplished their goal.
When Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is abruptly diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, his life radically changes: his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) distances herself from him, his best friend (Seth Rogen) encourages him to start using cancer as a pity tool for sex, his overprotective mother (Anjelica Huston) freaks out and constantly checks in on him, and he becomes the third patient ever for a young therapist (Anna Kendrick) seeking her doctorate. From the summary, it may seem as if a lot is going on, but in fact, the movie lounges easily from one point to the next, fading in and out of subplots as Adam struggles to retain his sanity in the wake of horrible circumstances.
There’s no shortage of jokes, the funniest of which come from Rogen, a comedian who wore out his welcome early with me but who I’ve actually found increasingly likeable in recent years. Gordon-Levitt plays the whole thing straight, but a lot of humor is derived from his occasional deadpan deliveries; his dips into the dramatic provide an anchor for audience relatability, giving us a canvas on which to project our own loved ones who may be suffering similar fates. Anna Kendrick plays her usual on-screen self – a charming, insecure girl who talks a bit too much – but I enjoy her work, so I didn’t have any problems with her. And Bryce Dallas Howard, someone who (to me, anyway) is known for playing mostly likeable characters, goes against type here in a career choice similar to Rachel McAdams’ in this year’s Midnight in Paris.
Jonathan Levine, who directed the interesting Sundance indie The Wackness as well as the abysmal All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (I hope it stays shelved forever, that’s how bad it is), takes a more reserved approach behind the camera than usual. His normal stylistic flourishes are left behind in favor of emotional character moments, and perhaps the best compliment I can give him is that 50/50 doesn’t feel like a Jonathan Levine movie. He coaxes some really good performances out of his actors, and this is clearly the best film with which he’s been involved. Michael Giacchino’s score is beautiful, and this guy continues to show why he’s nipping at John Williams’ heels to become the best in the business. Somehow, the man is able to make a scene where trash is dumped out of a car incredibly romantic with just a few notes (you’ll know the scene when you see it). He’s pumping out iconic score after iconic score, and he’s still in his prime.
I won’t get into too many details, since most of this movie is more about the feelings it conjures and less about the individual scenes that accomplish said conjuring. 50/50 is as funny as a movie about cancer can be without turning into a downright farce, but it’s real strength lies in the dramatic beats. JGL fans will be pleased. Until next time…