50/50 – A Comedy about Cancer?

  • Director – Jonathan Levine
  • Starring – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston
  • Writer – Will Resier
  • Year – 2011
  • Length –  100 mins

A comedy about cancer?  That can’t be right.   Surely cancer is about as serious as it gets.  The simple mention of the C-word normally fills people with dread; no one really knows how to react to it or what to say when they meet real life sufferers.  However the one thing that has been clear to date is that people know not to laugh at it.  That is until now.

50/50 is a semi-biographical comedy/drama penned by Will Resier, based on his own personal battle against cancer. It is the sort of script that you feel could only have been written by someone who has been there themselves and boy does it show.  In a film with subject matter as dark as this, delivering the right tone is essential.  Too dark and you lose the film, too light and you lose the audience sympathies.  It is with this in mind that Resier’s script is something of a masterpiece.  The tone is perfectly judged, delivering moments of genuine emotional turmoil, punctuated with relief bringing humour delivered via snappily written dialogue.  This is perfectly highlighted in the moments that Adam is told he has cancer – ‘I have cancer?  I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I exercise….I recycle….’. The whole tone of the film just feels real. You can imagine this is very close to how it was.

The story begins with Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as a healthy 27 year old working in a local radio station alongside best mate Kyle (Seth Rogan).  After a period of back pain, Adam consults his doctor who after an MRI scan, diagnoses Adam with a rare form of spinal cancer with a survival rate of 50%.  Supported (to various degrees) by his best mate(Rogan), girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard) and mother (Anjelica Huston), Adam embarks on a period of chemo and mental therapy, the latter delivered by the newly qualified Dr Katie (Anna Kendrick), in a bid to beat the cancer.

Right from the off it is worth saying that this is Joseph Gorden-Levitt’s film.  Levitt as Adam delivers another hugely impressive performance, and one that had me fully engaged and rooting for him from the opening scene.  He plays Adam with sensitivity and honesty, and you genuinely feel for him throughout the film.  Adam is the perfect counter-balance to Seth Rogan’s Kyle, whose idea of support appears to be predominately based on taking advantage of the situation to elicit Adam (and indeed himself) as much sympathy sex as possible.  This brings some amusing moments, but it is later in the film as Kyle struggles to deal with the emotional aspects of the situation that Rogan really shines. Subsequent to watching the film I discovered the close friendship and history between the script writer Reiser and Rogan.  This is quite astonishing and puts Rogan’s performance firmly into perspective; he may well not have been acting at all.

As Adam embarks on breaking the news to those close to him and indeed work colleagues (including the strangest work party I have ever seen), rather than gathering the required support base for Adam, you get the strong feeling that it is Adam who is leading everyone through this process; a bit like a support group but in reverse.   Everyone struggles in situations like this and it is painful watching his relationships with his best friend, girlfriend and parents slowly unravel under the weight of uncertainty.  At times Adam appears extremely lonely, and never forget lonely with a potentially fatal disease; this is heartbreaking to watch.  Thankfully Adam finds solace in his newly familiar medical surroundings through fellow chemotherapy patients (played wonderfully by Philip Baker-Hall + Matt Frewer) and his therapist Dr Katie (Kendrick).

It is with these two new groups that Adam begins to understand and importantly accept what is happening to him.  Kendrick delivers another top class performance as Dr Katie, who as a newly qualified therapist with Adam as only her 3rd patient, is clearly still learning the ropes.  The chemistry between the two of them is wonderfully awkward at times, but also very genuine.  They are both new at this, but somehow Katie is able to lead Adam through his emotional roller-coaster  so helping him concentrate on what is important.  It is with this in mind, that one of the most powerful scenes in the film is between Adam and his mum.  This genuinely emotional scene beautifully portrays the importance of the mother child relationship.  It had me in floods of tears and I suspect I am not alone here.

50/50 is a remarkably well judged, uplifting and strangely amusing film of which all involved should take a well deserved bow.  It deals with a difficult subject matter sensitively, respectively but also I suspect from reading some other reactions to the film, very genuinely. It challenges the way we should look at difficult situations and importantly how we react to them, and with the people involved. Whilst I was initially concerned it would be a tough watch, it was one of the most genuine comedies that I have seen for some time.  Highly recommended.


Review by Will Malone
If you liked 50/50, then try American Reunion