50/50 – Review


Directed by Jonathan Levine. Starring Joseph Gordon-LevittSeth RogenAnna KendrickAnjelica Huston.

When you first hear the words “cancer comedy” your heart will probably sink and your eyes will most likely roll back: spending an hour and a half in the company of a young man who has just discovered he’s got 50% chances of dying from cancer, is not exactly anybody’s idea of a Fun-Friday-night. Also knowing that Hollywood is behind all this and that Seth Rogen (known mainly for his not-too-subtle humour) is involved in it just heightens the suspicion  that this might just be a catastrophic misstep.

However “50/50”  not only handles the cancer subject with respect, honesty and restrains but also gets the balance between both the irreverent comedy and the actual drama absolutely spot on.

Amazingly this is a film that makes you both laugh and cry within the space of minutes: the laughs may be few but they are always carefully placed to exorcise that sense of fear, angst and sorrow that runs through the rest of the movie in a way that never feels forced or gratuitous. It is funny without being flippant and heartwarming without being cheap or cheesy.

Apparently it was Seth Rogen himself who helped writer Will Reiser to cope with the disease and later pushed him to write the screenplay for the film. And this is clearly the work of somebody who’s lived through this agonising experience: there’s a certain rawness and matter-of-factness in the way the details and minutia of what must be like to live with such burden are depicted.

It’s certainly not a masterpiece (some of the secondary characters are fairly sketchy and on the whole stylistically and visually it feels more like a TV-drama than anything) but  it’s very well handled throughout and though the ending might feel a bit too conclusive and rather too optimistic (especially the bit with Anna Kendrick), “50/50” is never exploitive or cheap, it rarely pulls back and it never looses sight of the harsh reality of cancer: chemotherapy is tough, dealing with the illness is no joke for both for the patient and the people around the patient, and people do actually die.

Everybody in the film plays to their strengths and do what they do best: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a way seems to play an extension of his character from “500 Days of Summer” (in my view one of the most refreshing comedies of the last few years): he brings with him a charming sweetness which makes him very likable and yet he does it without ever resorting to cheesy or cute winks to camera. In fact quite the opposite, as he’s willing to go that extra-mile to make it all look and feel real (he even shaved his hair in one of the most memorable scene in the film in what must have been a one-take affair). His performance is subtle and mostly underplayed and yet truthful and powerful as his character Adam moves through shock, denial, acceptance, anger, defiance. The whole movie rests on him and if the film works as it does, it has a lot to do with his performance.

Seth Rogen too, as Adam’s best friend, does his usual Seth Rogen stuff, bringing his crass humour with him and yet always rooted to some down-to-heart reality. The relationship between him and Adam is possibly the highlight of the film: never for a moment you doubt that the two of them could be real best friends.

The women in the film are slightly short-changed: the girlfriend character is under-developed and rather annoying, and the subplot with the inexperience therapist sweetly played by Anna Ken­drick feels a bit tagged on. Only Anjelica Houston manages to make the most of her slightly under-written role as Adam’s mother and shines with a couple of Oscar-worthy moments.

The music too, like the whole tone of the film, is carefully balanced, alternating a large amount with pop song (At times it almost feels like a Cameron Crowe movie) and a restrained score by Micheal Giacchino (who seems to be doing everything these days) which never falls into schmaltzy territory.

I am not sure I would want to watch this film again, nor I would be willing to suggest it to anyone who’s looking for a good day out in the cinema, but it’s a brave one and for that it’s to be commended. If only all drama-comedies were so unfussy, courageous, subtle and honest, Hollywood would be a better place.


04 June 2012 – in fact since writing the review above, I have watched this film again, and somehow, knowing the ending, I was able to relex more and enjoy the film even more than the first time around. (I even bumped it up by half a vote). I still feel the all-too-cute resolution with the therapist should have been cut out, but aside from that I think this is one of the strongest film that came of Hollywood last in 2011. Looking back, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt really deserved some award for this!

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