Cancer sucks. Sadly, so do many movies about the disease. The inclination is to go for the mawkish, the broad and the cheap - which is actually semi-understandable, as getting cancer is really, really fucking sad.
It was with some great trepidation that I approached 50/50, the new film from The Wackness director Jonathan Levine, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young guy who gets a shattering diagnosis. I like Levine’s films, and the idea of him doing a Hollywood cancer weepie was not attractive to me. This felt like the exact wrong material for him.
This is probably why I don’t make movies - it’s almost exactly the right material for Levine. 50/50 isn’t mawkish, it’s only slightly sentimental, and it doesn’t go out of its way to manipulate you. If anything the film’s tone is exactly right for this story. It’s sort of wistful, mostly funny, a touch sad and resolutely un-dramatic.
While that sounds like a weird thing to say as a positive, it fits totally with the character played by Levitt, who is not at all a drama queen. The film is based on the real experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, and I think this movie tells you a lot about what kind of a guy he is. The film is largely concerned with how others react TO the cancer, with Levitt’s Adam as the most composed, together guy in the room. This isn’t a movie about histrionics or big crazy emotional outbursts; even Adam’s break-up with his bitch of a girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is sort of low-key.
That isn’t the main relationship in the film. The movie really centers on the friendship between Adam and Kyle, played by Seth Rogen - who happens to be one of Will Reiser’s real life best friends. In many ways Rogen is playing himself here, a slacker manchild whose first reaction to Adam’s news is to figure out ways it can get them laid. There’s an honesty to this performance that’s surprising; Kyle is often a self-centered asshole, and not always the ‘lovable’ kind. It’s a testament to Rogen’s charisma that he can still keep us liking him all the way through until he gets his inevitable redemption.
Rogen also has a remarkable chemistry with Levitt. These guys feel like actual friends, something that goes a long way to helping us accept some of Kyle’s worst qualities. The two play back and forth well, and the hot/cold nature of the actors’ personalities are nice counterpoints. What’s interesting (if I can pull back the curtain for a moment) is that Levitt was only brought in a couple of weeks before shooting started when the original star dropped out. It all worked out, as Levitt has a cool dignity that makes his eventual emotional breakdown near the end all the more impactful.
I’m not as sold on the romance aspects of the movie. Bryce Dallas Howard is the girlfriend who doesn’t know how to deal with Adam’s sickness and ends up cheating; it’s possible that this is based on a real person in Reiser’s life, but in the film the character doesn’t feel complete as a human being. Which is a pity because Howard is good in a limited role, and because Reiser seems so capable of giving each secondary character a strong sense of depth, no matter how small their role.
The other side of the romance equation is Anna Kendrick as Adam’s counselor. Kendrick is great; he’s her first patient, and she plays nervous and determined and sweet and cute and slightly overwhelmed all at once, and does it with strong comedic chops. It’s no wonder that Adam falls for her. But the romance takes on a Hollywood feel, or more accurately the feel of cancer patient wish-fulfillment.
That’s a minor blip in a film that otherwise is set to tell a cancer story without the usual mainstream trappings - or to at least do them up in quirky, unique ways. 50/50, which refers to Adam’s survival odds, is a terrible title for a good movie. Emotional without being cloying, honest and suitably low key, 50/50 isn’t Levine’s best film but is a strong sign of his mastery of classical filmmaking.