Rated R/100 minutes
When a radio program producer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns he has cancer, he finds everyone around him is changing: his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) is both over-attentive and distant, his mother (Anjelica Huston) tries to shoe horn her way back into his life and his best friend (Seth Rogen) is using him to score chicks and to help him forget that he has a “50 percent chance” of surviving.
Here’s a wonderful surprise, a great comedy about a young man who is diagnosed with cancer. What most would expect is a sappy, depressing ordeal or worse, a major bummer and something in truly bad taste. What makes this work is how the script and direction always find the right tone for every scene and genuinely defy expectations.
Few of the subplots go exactly as the characters or the audience could predict, with many scenes providing a twist on story conventions. Among the best example is Rogen’s capturing an infidelity with his camera phone, a fall down funny sequence that is well played, cleverly written and staged. There’s also the ending, which some may disagree with but I found refreshingly different for a film like this and the preconceived notions most will have walking into it.
In short, 50/50 isn’t a dour, heavy-handed Disease of the Week TV Movie ordeal. Gordon-Levitt leads a fine ensemble cast in a movie funny enough to leave your ribs aching from laughter but also potently touching and honest.
Everyone has a moment to shine, starting with Rogen, who brings both his rowdy humor and genuine humanity to the role that goes for the most laughs and gets them every time. Huston makes her character real and not a caricature and Howard has the tricky task of taking a potentially thankless role and making her both weak and relatable, which she does beautifully.
Anna Kendrick adds real spice to the part of a very-young doctor in training who’s in over her head and Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Fewer are terrific as couple of old souls who bond during chemo-therapy sessions. Finally, there’s Gordon-Levitt, a veteran actor who underplays his part perfectly, never reaching for audience sympathy and always finding the right note.
Even with lots of pot humor, penis jokes and scenes of young men trying to score, this isn’t a subpar teen sex farce, nor a straight forward tear-jerker like Terms of Endearment. Even when the story gets tougher and Gordon-Levitt’s character faces some grueling health obstacles, richly observed moments of humor pop up. Even the introduction of “Skeletor the Dog” finds pathos and big laughs instead of cheap, cuddly animal close-ups.
The raunchy jokes mixed in with the immediacy of the subject matter may cause some to dismiss this as another attempt at making the cancer-equivalent to Knocked Up or Juno, but this avoids the preciousness of both movies and has none of the clean-cut, familiar vibes of most quirky American comedies. This is a movie about a man afraid of dying and bravely follows him every step of the way but never losing sight of the life he’s living or the laughter and joy he finds from the people around him.
I realize most would avoid seeing something like this, as a one-sentence summary makes it sound like a bad night at the movies. The truth is this pulls off a tricky feat of keeping the audience entertained and almost always laughing and remaining hopeful and pessimistic at the same time. It may be a tough sell but here it is, a comedy about living with cancer and it’s a terrific.