Frequent and unexplainable back pain takes Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the doctor’s office. After various tests, the 27-year-old learns that he has a tumor on his spine. It’s a rare form of cancer – Schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma – that, depending on if it has spread and if it’s operable, carries with it a 50 percent chance of survival. Adam begins treatment, and along the way, with the assistance of his best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen), his mother (Angelica Huston), and therapist (Anna Kendrick), he learns what’s truly important.
Based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences with the disease, 50/50 has, toward the end of the film, some “sad” moments, but for the most part it is a comedy, which is unusual. Making cancer funny isn’t something you see very often. The question is: Is it funny? I guess that depends on your perspective. Gordon-Levitt plays the “straight man,” so that means Rogen is serving up the laughs. And those come in the form of blowjob references, jokes about how Adam can use his condition to get laid … in one sequence Adam is about to shave his head, using his friend’s electric clippers, and there is a question about whether or not these have been used on Rogen’s pubs or on his butthole. Oh, and there is the obligatory drug taking sequence. Did I miss anything? Probably not. This is Judd Apatow territory, and if his films cause you to double over with laughter, you will totally fall in love with 50/50. I did not.
I’m all for making cancer funny. It takes the sting out of such a horrible disease. I should know. In December 2010, my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer and for four months, I saw him go through the hell of chemotherapy and undergo several surgeries. My husband was actually the one who wanted to see 50/50, and I know that he enjoyed it much more than I did. Why my reaction wasn’t as favorable? First, as I said, the “comedy” was nothing more than low brow jokes, the kind of lazy fodder that clogs up the cinema these days. And second, whether it was “true to life” or not, the relationship that develops between Adam and his 24-year-old, graduate student therapist was completely inappropriate. It doesn’t matter that she’s not a full-fledged therapist. One day she will be, and if she starts falling in love with/dating all of her other patients, she’s going to have some legal problems.
There were things that I liked about 50/50. One was the heartfelt performance by Gordon-Levitt, an actor I’ve admired/loved since he played Tommy Solomon in the TV series 3rd Rock from the Sun. According to IMDB, James McAvoy was slated to play Adam, but, because of personal conflicts, had to drop out at the last minute. Gordon-Levitt stepped in less than one week before shooting was scheduled to begin. Although McAvoy is a decent actor, Gordon-Levitt, no doubt, brings more charisma and sweetness to this role. He successfully navigates the journey from bewilderment to the absolute terror of having to face his own mortality. It’s a strong, award-worthy performance. Huston is also amazing as the mother; a strong, if overbearing, woman who is already caring for her Alzheimer’s afflicted husband. Having been a caretaker myself, my heart really went out to her, and I found myself very moved by the interaction between mother and son. In fact, I wish that the film has focused more on this relationship. Despite my objections to how the relationship developed between Adam and his therapist, I did like Kendrick’s performance. That said, it was very reminiscent of the one she delivered in Up in the Air. She better be careful that she doesn’t get typecast as the intelligent yet insecure and quirky 20-something. Some of the best moments in the film come courtesy of Adam interacting with two other cancer patients, Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall). While undergoing chemotherapy, they share some homemade brownies that contain marijuana. Best sequence in the entire film.
Despite the fact that I truly loathe Bryce Dallas Howard, she does a good job at giving the film its villain. As Rachael, Adam’s artist girlfriend, she represents everything that perplexes me about human relationships. How in the world could you turn your back on someone who is undergoing cancer? How could you put yourself before that person? Having read a book on lessons learned by cancer survivors, I can tell you that people like this exist, and it’s pathetic. Nut up and deal with it. On the bright side, she did give him a “retired” greyhound as a companion. I wish that they had included more footage of the dog. It was kind of a throw-away “character.” (To learn how to properly use a dog in a film about cancer, please watch Beginners, an INFINITELY better film.) In fact, less Rogen, more greyhound would have suited me just fine. In his defense, at least his character ended up being a true friend; a stand-up guy who was truly concerned and compassionate. I just wish he hadn’t been such an offensive and repellent human being.
Overall, 50/50 had its moments, but for me, failed to “lighten up” the subject of cancer.
Rating a weak, very weak, 3 stars out of 5.