50/50 (2011)

Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by Will Resier

For the majority of people around the world cancer is not only a terrible, dreadful, deadly disease, but it is also a reality. There are few people who have not experienced cancer first hand in some way, whether they have had a friend or family member effected by cancer or they at least have known someone who has had it. There is nothing funny about cancer or its seemingly blind eye when it comes to the people whom it targets. And yet here we find a film about cancer written by Will Reiser, who has been a producer on many comedy shows, and stars the likes of Seth Rogen, who have helped to shape the comedy landscape in the past decade.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young man living in Seattle and working at the public radio station with his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen). He has a beautiful girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is an artist  and also hated by Kyle. When Adam begins having back problems he goes to see the doctor, who tells him the bad news: he has a rare type of cancer. To help cope, Adam goes to one of the hospital’s therapists, who happens to not even be a doctor, but a doctor in training. As only Katherine’s third patient, Adam learns how to deal with his life, whether Rachael truly loves him, what kind of friend Kyle is, and even how much he loves his mother (Anjelica Houston) and father.

I find the film fascinating for more than one reason, but the one that I had in mind when I entered the theater to see it, and in fact still have in mind now, is the story of the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, admittedly one of my favorite current actors. James McAvoy was originally cast in the lead role as Adam, but after backing out of the role, the production team had to scramble to find a replacement. After a phone call from Seth Rogen, Gordon-Levitt accepted the role just two days before shooting, which makes his performance that much more impressive, and it is a great one in which he blends the subtlety of a mid-twenties young man who was unsure of his place in the world with his friends and loved ones while expressing the outward emotion of someone struggling with the reality of cancer.

I was also impressed with how the film dealt with the subject of cancer. It is true that many subjects in film can be manipulative and things like the Holocaust have been accused as being Oscar bait for being just that, but director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Resier both treat it in a much more natural and reserved way, but that is not also to say that the film doesn’t pull at the heartstrings, because it does, but in a way that is not manipulative, but much more natural. It handles the subject matter well. The relationship between Adam and Katherine is also very nice, and I think what makes all of it work is that the two characters seem real to me, and perhaps that is just me personally identifying with them. But Anna Kendrick’s and Gordon-Levitt’s performances manage to not fall into the same cliches that mark their characters on the page.

Jonathan Levine’s direction adds nothing to the proceedings, and perhaps some smart direction could have lifted this film higher, but the human performances from pretty much the entire cast make for a nice cinematic experience. And the comedy is genuinely funny, even when intertwined with the grim reality of cancer sitting right in front of Adam. I continue to be amazed at the capabilities of Gordon-Levitt, who delivers yet again despite limited time to prep for the role. Seth Rogen is a good actor as well, even if some people dislike his brand of comedy or have grown tired of it, which this film will not change. It has it’s awkward moments and the script can be quite generic at times, but as Will Reiser’s first screenplay, the film is surprisingly effective despite its detractions.

 

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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