Though some in the audience may feel uncomfortable with the notion of a cancer comedy in Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, when it comes to a potentially terminal diagnosis beyond the power of doctors to heal, sometimes laughter is indeed the best medicine. And as relayed with raw candor and blunt emotion uniquely through the eyes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s suddenly stricken young patient – and based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own personal bout with the disease at the age of twenty-five – 50/50 gets it ruthlessly when not raucously right.
Levitt is Adam in 50/50, a shy, sensitive young man with an entry level job at a radio station and a promising future. Even if he’s into denial regarding his infatuation with glamorous trophy girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), who may be hanging around more out of pity than passion. A less than fulfilling aspect of his life compensated by the constant cheerful if not frequently over the top presence of boisterous best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen).
But Adam’s life is suddenly and brutally transformed when back pain leads to a diagnosis of a rare form of spinal cancer. And an online search of the malignancy that socks him with 50/50 survival odds. Along with an ordeal that is much about limited treatment options and grueling side effects, as the borderline surreal awkwardness and inability of those close to him, to rationally deal with his illness or console him.
Much more than a cut above typical disease dramas, 50/50 spins eccentric humor out of savage heartbreak. And targets both the sick and supportive with equal opportunity satirical relish, that taunts but never trivializes the human condition as universal borrowed time. With splendid, humbling moments touching on for instance, a blundering novice cancer specialty shrink (Anna Kendrick) receiving role reversal on the job training from Adam’s impatient patient; the flaky gift of a retired racing dog for creature comfort back home; Adam’s flustered mom (Anjelica Huston) helplessly offering green tea as the cure she caught on TV; and sampling marijuana macaroons with a stage 3 lymphoma elder (Philip Baker Hall) during shared chemo therapy gab sessions.
A both compassionately crafted and devilishly comical tale playing out in Seattle (by way of Vancouver via the usual outsourced Hollywood), 50/50 illuminates a twentysomething’s ironic existence. That is, too old to be a boy mothered in his critical hour of need, yet too young to face death, having never quite lived yet. Including the missed chance that ‘I never told a girl I loved her.’ And having to deal with the well meaning but frustrating false assurances of others, when Adam just needs someone to level with him that ‘I’m dying, dude.’
And perhaps most astonishing of all, is the fortitude which that survivor screenwriter Reiser drew from the outrageous humor of his best friend in real life. And that friend happened to be Seth Rogen.