By Alec Calder Johnsson
To be blunt, I have had relatives die of cancer (and I figure most people have). It is a sensitive subject, even for the more blasé of our species. A cancer comedy, therefore, carries the risk of trivializing that unfortunate physical condition through its humor. Indeed, one of the criticisms that some people are lobbying against 50/50 is that it downplays cancer’s grim realities for the sake of laughter. I disagree. Whatever truths the film’s script apparently skirts around to sustain that cozy feeling of cinematic escapism are more than compensated for with a palpable lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who should be considered among one of this generation’s finest actors.
Directed by Jonathan Levine (a cousin of Madison Levine, HC ’15) and with a script written by Will Reiser drawn from real life, 50/50 showcases JGL as Adam, a forgivably naïve, well-meaning everyman, age 27, who works as a researcher for news radio and lives a casual life in a surprisingly rain-deprived Seattle. When he goes to the doctor to get verification on a persistent back pain, he learns that there is a novel tumor growing in his spine’s trunk. His odds of surviving provide the film’s title; one might as well flip a coin. The film’s first act does repeat some of indie cinema’s most conspicuous flaws—a hammy, adamant soundtrack, and supporting characters that are thrown at us like casino dice, including a dad with Alzheimer’s who I’m guessing had some scenes cut from the film. Yet behind all of that, I could hear that coin twirling in mid-air.
Each person close to Adam responds to the diagnosis in ways that cover the whole spectrum between apathy and unhealthy anguish. His best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen, here unpretentious and natural), seems genuinely terrified even while he exploits Adam’s cancer for one-night stands and encourages Adam to do the same. His mother (Anjelica Huston) decides on an impulse to move in with her son but is turned down; Adam can hold his own. And his girlfriend, the subpar painter Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a coward insomuch that she cannot muster the strength to stay by his side in this time of need and thinks that an anorexic dog will be a sufficient replacement. All of these dilemmas are treated with a warm comicality that never shies away from deepening Adam’s sense of existential impermanence; the dog’s name, by the way, is Skeletor.
Dubious relations with old friends require fermenting stronger connections with new friends. Adam joins a support group of chemo patients fronted by a deadpan Philip Baker Hall and gets counseling from medical student Kate, whose lovable diffidence is executed to perfection by Anna Kendrick, an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air. The film’s funniest scenes are between Adam and Kate, who have a clear difficulty operating around the arbitrary walls between therapist and client, and who—in reality—slowly begin to operate on a much different, more unorthodox level. Such chemistry is tricky to convey on screen, yet the scenes featuring these two have neither a false note nor a contrivance.
Throughout every awkward moment and mirthful vignette, the sense of mortality is constant, and this is mainly due to the strength and maturity of Gordon-Levitt. If you pay attention to his oeuvre, you’ll find that he acts in most of his films (Brick, (500) Days of Summer, Inception) with a smarmy smugness, always tweaked just enough to fit his character, but always hosting the same simper that conveys condescension while hiding deep anxieties. He has made it work.
In 50/50, he goes further; he drops the persona, showing a more vulnerable and emotional side and thereby demonstrating his range. There is one scene where Adam, feeling his death is imminent, wants to try something he has never tried before that could kill him in a more painful way, and I didn’t know whether I wanted to let him be or get onto the screen and slap him in the face. What he does is outrageous and hazardous, but I understood why he does it. This is easily JGL’s best performance since Brick, and that film is one of my all-time favorites.
The film’s climax is all-or-nothing, as all coin tosses are. All I will say is that I had no idea what was going to happen to Adam. The film convinced me of Adam’s cancer and what it does to his mind and body. Heads or tails? Life or death? I could not decide. I left the movie theater drained and shaken to the bone; the odds of a comedy—even a dark one—doing that to you are certainly not 50/50.