Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, you’re going to cry during 50/50. For those hoping that a (rather masterful) comedic approach to a very difficult subject would keep any and all potential tears at bay, sorry — you’re in for quite the tearjerker.
Now let’s go back to that whole “comedic approach to a very difficult subject” thing. One of the most difficult challenges in filmmaking — something that in many ways could make or break the way the audience relates to the story being told — is the maintaining of a consistent tone. It’s hard work to make a sad movie sad, a scary movie scary and a funny movie funny. So why in the hell would anyone torture themselves with the task of making a movie that’s supposed to be both funny and sad — like, for the entire damn running time?
Pulling off this seemingly insurmountable task is the key triumph of 50/50. Director Jonathan Levine, screenwriter Will Reiser and the entire cast have managed to make a film about a twenty-something kid dying of cancer that happens to be, more often than not, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. 50/50 is to date the trickiest cinematic tightrope act of 2011, and a film that deserves no end of praise for the compassionate dedication it has to its near-impossible dramatic — and, yes, comedic — premise.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (aces, as always) plays Adam, a straight-arrow radio producer who’s suddenly diagnosed with cancer and given a 50/50 chance of living. This life-changing (and, perhaps, -ending) revelation affects everyone around him, from his overbearing mother (Angelica Huston) to his no-good girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) to his nervously wisecracking best friend (Seth Rogen), but the main focus of this character study is on the man who must ultimately carry the burden himself. The disease transforms Adam from an easily trod-upon nebbish to an angry young man who’s determined to live what might be his final days on his own terms, rejecting his mother’s suffocating affections, dumping his selfish girlfriend and embracing a brand-new life experience with his young therapist (Anna Kendrick) — one that might, indeed, be his last.
Will Reiser based his screenplay on his own real-life battle with cancer, which makes for an honest and, for the most part, refreshingly unsentimental story, one well-served by the impressively unobtrusive direction by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness). Levine doesn’t force any particular situation, exchange or even silent look into any sort of “this is a sad moment” or “this is an angry moment” or “this is where a laugh will bring some levity to the tragedy” compartmentalization — the film flows freely and surely and unmanipulated, leaving the audience to decide on their own how they feel about all of this (gasp!).
This approach definitely agrees with the members of the cast, many of which do their career-best work to date. We knew Gordon-Levitt could do big emotion in a comedic (500 Days of Summer), tragic (Mysterious Skin) and comedic-tragic (Hesher) context before, but 50/50 transcends all of that excellent work — this is his movie, and he never hits a false note as he struggles to deal with this horrendous and completely unfair bullshit that’s been handed to him. Huston is heartbreaking as the mother who has no idea how to handle any of this other than to be as protective and nurturing as possible, and Kendrick creates another delightful character whose good intentions and big heart win over the fact that she might be in a little over her head. Howard, unfortunately, is a little one-note as the evil girlfriend (hmmm, is this character coming from your own life experience perhaps more particularly than the others, Mr. Reiser?), but Rogen — not surprisingly — steals the show as the best friend who stands by his bro through thick and thin, making constant jokes because, well, someone has to in this godforsaken situation.
50/50 won’t let you off easy. There is some particularly rough road on this journey. But even through the most harrowing emotional moments, you won’t be able to help but dedicate yourself to it as strongly as did the people who made it.