50/50 – Review

Film:  50/50 (2011)

Starring:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston

Directed by:  Jonathan Levine

Produced by:  Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Ben Karlin

Written by:  Will Reiser

Music by:  Michael Giacchino

Running Time:  99 minutes

Note: This entry contains a few minor spoilers

A while ago, I expressed my excitement to see the Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogen dramedy 50/50. When I first heard about the premise, I quickly drew several surface-level comparisons to 2009′s Funny People, which, after very high expectations, I thought was just okay.

50/50, however, seamlessly integrated humor and drama and ended up being a noticeably more enjoyable and markedly different movie than Funny People. Funny People seemed to struggle somewhat with its direction (a surprise with the talented Judd Apatow at the helm), but 50/50, directed by Jonathan Levine and written by Will Reiser (the film is loosely based on his life; more on that later), was crisp, entertaining, and quite realistic even with its occasional silliness. While often inducing raucous laughs, the movie always had at least an undertone (and towards, the end, explicit overtones) of real human drama.

Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young man living in Seattle who writes for public radio and lives with his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). Adam does not smoke or drink, is seemingly in good physical shape (as the film’s opening shots of him running would indicate), and does not have a car or even a driver’s license because he believes that driving is excessively dangerous. Given how careful he is with his body and life, he would be the last guy you’d expect to come down with cancer, especially at such a young age.

Alas, though, the film’s plot is born when Adam, after experiencing some back pains and visiting a doctor, learns that he has a very rare type of cancer in the form of a spinal tumor, and that his chance of survival is 50%. He soon breaks the news to his girlfriend, his best friend Kyle (Rogen), and his mother (Anjelica Huston). Each of these people reacts differently. Rachael starts out by doing what she knows is right and tries to stay with Adam and support him, but her true colors are soon revealed as she grows weary with the implications of caring for Adam. Kyle spends a lot of time with Adam and tries to be optimistic and funny, while also trying to leverage Adam’s sickness for success with women. Adam’s mother, on the other hand, becomes obsessive and her efforts to help Adam only make him impatient and unwilling to talk to her.

Katie (Anna Kendrick) helps Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) cope with his predicament in '50/50.'

Adam, meanwhile, begins seeing an inexperienced 24-year-old psychiatrist named Katie (Anna Kendrick), who — despite having the title of Dr. Katherine McKay — is actually still working on attaining her doctorate. Their relationship starts out awkwardly, not helped at all by a cold, reserved Adam, but it gradually begins to build up into something quite worthwhile for both of them.

One aspect of the movie that I really appreciated was how it was not just about Adam’s friends and family helping him and growing as people — it was also about Adam coming to terms with some things and changing some of his ways. The most notable example of this was his relationship with his mother, who thankfully was allowed to be more than just a stock character, thus allowing Anjelica Huston to shine in an understated way. Adam is very much annoyed by her and is fairly unreceptive to her efforts to help him, but with the help of Katie, he begins to understand things from his mother’s point of view. She does not have many enjoyable things going on in her life; her husband/Adam’s father (Serge Houde) has Alzheimer’s, so she has to tend to him daily. She just wants to talk to Adam and help him. As Katie says, “She has a husband who can’t talk to her and a son who won’t.” Adam takes this message to heart, and thus, his predicament helps cure him in other areas of life.

Gordon-Levitt was excellent as always. As an aside, I actually read one of the few negative reviews of this movie that criticized his acting, describing him as “catatonic,” “sleepy,” and “passive.” Hmm…could he seem this way because his character has been diagnosed with cancer?! I mean, that’s not exactly uplifting news. I imagine that’s how a lot of people act when they learn they have cancer — depressed. This author seemed to write a negative review for the sake of writing a negative review — a cardinal sin of cynicism in the world of critiquing cinema (alliteration intended).

Anyway, let’s get back to my (superior) review. Rogen was unsurprisingly the film’s biggest source of comedy, essentially playing himself. A lot of people say that he does this in almost every movie he’s in, but it was very much the case this time, as he was actually a part of the story that inspired the movie. As was mentioned previously, screenwriter Will Reiser based 50/50 on his own experience with a rare type of spinal cancer, and his best friend who helped him cope with it was none other than the real-life Seth Rogen. Since there was such realistic inspiration for this film, I think that very much enhanced its ability to make us empathize, and it also made the comedy much more believable and rarely in poor taste.

Some of the movie’s other funny and memorable scenes involve the wonderful library cop, Mr. Bookman Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as fellow chemotherapy patients whom Adam befriends and from whom he discovers the wonders of medicinal marijuana (Adam decides to put his non-smoking policy on hold for this). This added another dimension to 50/50, as the film was perhaps making a mild and tacit sociopolitical statement about marijuana.

50/50 is ultimately a good-hearted story about life, love, and friendship. These are undoubtedly common themes in cinema, but what makes 50/50 effective is how its dramedy approach makes us connect with the characters and truly empathize and sympathize. Yes, it is very funny, but that humor was used with such great balance against the drama that it created a synergistic effect that elevated the film as a whole. I laughed quite a bit, but in the film’s latter half, there were several scenes that were intensely emotional and moving. Adam seems to hold a lot back for much of the film, but there is a very powerful scene where he finally lets out everything that had been bottled inside of him. This scene really hammers home the reality of the situation, and makes the audience care that much more about Adam’s fate.

In summation, 50/50’s biggest strengths are its two lead actors (but let’s not forget about Anjelica Huston) and most of all, its refreshingly natural balance of humor and drama. Dramedies are hard to pull off because of the tonal inconsistencies and unclear messages that can arise, but 50/50 does it with seemingly little effort.

Tommy D’s Score:




3.5 Tommy Ds

About Tommy D

Clemson and UGA alum with a market research job in LA. And I kind of like movies.

Posted on October 3, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Mixing humor and painful subject matter is, naturally, very difficult. The beauty of this movie is that it does so with ease, especially with such good actors in these roles as well. Good review. Check out my review when you get a chance.

  2. Nice review. I thought I was going to hate this movie and I ended up hating myself for thinking that. JGL was great as usual and I found Rogen extremely funny. we are reviewing this film for our 3 guys review this week.

  1. Pingback: Tommy D’s Top 10 Films of 2011 « Tommy D Talks Movies

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