Stricken with a shocking, confounding, and life-threatening cancer diagnosis, 27-year old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is forced to deal with realities he never could have anticipated in the brilliant “50/50”, a comedy/drama that takes a considerable amount of risk in conveying a story of this subject matter with a liberal mix of humor and drama. Adapted from screenwriter Will Reiser’s real life experiences in battling a dangerous and rare form of cancer, “50/50” is a film of subtle power and effectiveness, one of the more dynamic surprises I have encountered in a long, long time.
Adam works in production for Seattle Public Radio and has just recently extended an overture to his girlfriend, Racheal (Bryce Dallas Howard), to move in with him full time. His long-time best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), is almost inseparable from Adam and they have a tremendously close-knit friendship. Mired with a pain in his lower back that never seems to get any better, Adam visits his doctor and learns the stunning news that he has a rare and aggressive form of spinal cancer and imminent chemotherapy is needed to begin treatment. Reacting with surprise, disbelief, and some level of avoidance, Adam tells Racheal, who vows to help him through it, and Kyle, who after a completely understandable freak out, assures Adam that he will beat it and vows to also stay with him every step of the way.
As Adam learns that he has a 50/50 chance of beating the disease, Adam dreads sharing the news with his parents – an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and a father stricken with Alzheimer’s (Serge Houde). After a dinner reveal with his parents does not go like Adam hoped, he recoils from his mother’s emotional reaction and sets out to tackle cancer on his own, expecting that he’ll likely be alright with the support of Rachael and Kyle, if and when things get difficult.
Assigned a therapist to discuss and work through his emotional struggles and reactions, Adam encounters the 24-year old Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who begrudgingly acknowledges to Adam that he is her third patient ever and is presently working on her dissertation. When Adam seems almost apopletic with the notion that he has been assigned a medical student to offer him therapy, Katherine realizes that she may be ill equipped in assisting Adam, but she nonetheless offers him an awkward hand.
Now, let’s be honest here. I can hear red flags and alarms going off with this premise. So allow me to check the boxes for you.
Indie film. Cancer. Cancer comedy with dramatic elements. Snarky buddy providing comic relief. Girlfriend who may or may not be on board. Overbearing mother. Dad with Alzheimer’s. Clumsy 24-year old therapist conveniently interjected into the story to help Adam through the difficulties of what he is facing. And I haven’t even mentioned that Adam bonds and develops friendships with two other chemo patients, one in his early 80’s (Philip Baker Hall) and another in his mid-to-late 50’s (Matt Frewer). All of this sounds like a screenplay straight out of the Young Writer’s Handbook for On-Screen Manipulation. But in reality, I never expected or anticipated how trenchant Will Reiser’s screenplay would truly be and how outstanding Jonathan Levine’s film plays, almost in spite of itself.
The supporting performances are all memorable. Seth Rogen is witty, crass, self-absorbed, but completely and organically true to life. Rogen has wisecracked and riffed his way through several films through the years but the connection he has to Reiser and this story helps him bring forth a depth of character heretofore unseen. Bryce Dallas Howard turns yet another difficult and caricatured role (remember her tightrope act with “The Help”) into a layered and uncompromising performance that some may cite as one-note and one-dimensional, but carries a deeper emotional base than one might initially realize. Anjelica Huston is a welcome addition as Adam’s mother and has powerful, moving moments in her limited role. Anna Kendrick is quite impressive again, as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in 2009’s “Up In The Air”, as Adam’s therapist – desperate to help Adam and uneasily looking to forge a beneficial connection with her patient.
And yet, what “50/50” brings us above all else is a masterful performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, easily the best of his career, and in my mind cementing his status as one of the finest actors working in film today. Numerous performances through the years have hinted at his brilliance as an actor. Here and as Adam, Gordon-Levitt is simply beyond compare and transcends his growing and recognizable celebrity into a three-dimensional character, created from the inside out. Portraying Adam with a disarmingly quiet and searing complexity, the decisions, the emotions, the reactions are all true, believable, and effortlessly relayed on screen.
I have written this before and will undoubtedly say it again – the best films are the ones that catch you by surprise; the stories that present as one thing and then deliver something unexpectedly affecting and memorable. Perhaps I am leading with my heart a bit here, however “50/50” got me early and refused to let go. Never would I have imagined that this little indie about a young guy dealing with cancer, obnoxious buddy in tow, would leave me so moved, appreciative, and battling introspection – relating personal experiences and emotions to those playing out before me on the big screen.
“50/50” may present as cute and funny and nice, but it is a bold film, one in stark contrast to many of the predecessors who have attempted to tell a similar story. “Cancer Films” or “Terminal Condition Films” all seem to play melodramatic and champion the proud character, staying strong long enough to learn an invaluable life lesson and/or relay some type of teachable moment. Then when the orchestral score floods the soundtrack and those moments are realized, the character always goes peacefully, invariably changing the lives of those close by for better and for always. Will Reiser has no desire to deliver such a mawkish and false sentimental elegy on life and the cinematic beauty of it. Instead, he relies on the loyalties of friendship, loyalties that certainly helped him through his difficult obstacles, and draws on his own underlying fears and sensibilities to drive his story.
I have no idea if there is an audience for this film, but I desperately hope “50/50” finds one. I have such affinity for the film that I simply want to share the film with as many people as I can. When the film is funny, it is quotable. When the tone shifts to more emotional elements, it is compelling and riveting. When the characters are stripped down to their emotional core, it is touching and unnervingly honest. In short, “50/50” is a fantastic film, sublime in virtually every way.