A young man gets cancer and some help from his boorish friend in 50/50, a surprisingly strong drama/comedy.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Seth Rogen) are twentysomethings and best friends who work together at the local public radio station and even commute to work together, giving Kyle ample time to complain about Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend. Adam is clean living (runs daily, no smoking, doesn’t drink much, puts up with Rachael’s limited interest in sex) whereas Kyle is all appetite. So when Adam goes to a doctor for his back pain, he’s stunned to hear the word cancer come out of his doctor’s mouth. So stunned that the screen blurs and the sound gets muffled as he processes his diagnosis. He has a rare kind of tumor on his back and it will require chemotherapy and then surgery.
Learning the news is tough — having to tell others is even worse. Rachael’s reaction is a sketchy too-quick declaration that she will be there for him. Adam’s mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) insists that she will move in to care for him — even though she is already taking care of Adam’s father (Serge Houde), who has Alzheimer’s. Kyle’s reaction is to first declare that he’s going to throw up and then start looking for the angles. For example, when Adam goes to the bookstore to buy a bunch of books about dealing with cancer, Kyle uses it as an opportunity to pick up the cute bookstore clerk. Later, when Rachael’s flakiness leads to a breakup with Adam, Kyle takes Adam out for a night on the town so he can test out “I have cancer” as a pick-up line.
As Adam’s illness progresses, Kyle is also there to help him get weed (medicinal marijuana — though the prescription is Kyle’s, not Adams) and even after they fight, he’s there to drive him to the hospital for his surgery.
There’s no good age for cancer but 50/50 (a title which refers to Adam’s odds of survival) makes a good case that there is a particular suckiness to getting cancer in one’s 20s. Adam doesn’t yet have a wife or children but is just old enough to not want to turn to his parents, to reattach himself to people he has just detached himself from. And, in addition to the hair loss and the general pallor that comes with his treatments, cancer is changing Adam just at the point in life where he is really getting to know himself.
Helping him deal with that aspect of his illness is Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young counselor — very young counselor, as he learns that she is only 24 (Adam’s 27) and he is only her third patient. Their scenes get to Adam’s frustration and anger at his situation — which he is able to discuss parts of with her even before he can fully admit to himself.
In interviews, the movie’s writer, Will Reiser, has talked about how the script grew out of his and Seth Rogen’s idea of making a funny cancer movie, something they talked about after Reiser was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. 50/50 isn’t exactly that — though I think its kind of humor is where a mainstream movie about the subject needs to be. It allows Adam to be contemplative yet also angry and Kyle to be a big fratty Seth Rogen character, under which we can fairly easily see a big-hearted friend. It’s a balancing act but one that the movie pulls off well.
In fact most of what is good about this movie is all the cheap things it doesn’t become — it doesn’t fall into sentiment, it doesn’t turn into a romance or a wacky sitcom (both of which would have been jarring). It doesn’t make any one character too horrible or too good and it doesn’t try to sell some idea of cancer as spiritual or philosophical journey. 50/50 gives us real-seeming people in a sucky situation — and, remarkably, it makes for a very solid movie. B-
Rated R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use. Directed by Jonathan Levin and written by Will Reiser, 50/50 is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed by Summit Entertainment.