Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, essentially a stand-in for Reiser, who learns he has a rare form of cancer along his spine in the peak of his life. Seth Rogen, from reports who basically plays himself as he did to Reiser, is the supportive, opportunistic, and (of course) foul-mouthed friend to help along the way. We also meet Adam’s super-supportive girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston), and his new-to-the-field therapist (Anna Kendrick) as they try and support Adam though the diagnosis, treatment, and aftermath.
While the previews mostly portrayed this film as more comedic in tone, 50/50 is primarily a drama with a sprinkling of comedy, usually courtesy of Rogen. There is only so much light you can make of a film about a debilitating illness without it coming across as inappropriate or crass. Fortunately, Reiser’s script walks a pretty fine line between making a mockery of the suffering of millions and taking what comes from life in stride. The film succeeds on this front as it is not a heavy-handed “live your life to the fullest” affair but also addresses the hardship that comes with the plights of Adam’s fellow cancer buddies played by Philip Baker Hall and Trashcan Man Matt Frewer.
Not many actors can pull of such a varied performance as Gordon-Levitt did as he hits every stage of the process in perfect form with scenes filled with joy, anger or grief and some all combined together. I would say it is an award-worthy performance but apparently the powers that be do not agree. The rest of the actors merely revolve around Adam in some shape or form with Rogen not breaking too much new ground and Kendrick playing the same young and sensitive, yet inexperienced role that she has in other films. Huston in minimal screentime had quite an impact as the mother that Adam purposefully distances himself from yet relies on when everything comes down to the wire.
Director Jonathan Levine takes what you would anticipate being an ensemble effort and focuses superbly on Adam and his struggle. From the first diagnosis when the “State University” doctor remarks that his cancer is quite interesting because it is rare and yada yada yada, Levine pulls back and focuses solely on the ear of the patient as he tries to comprehend the words being causally tossed at him. We follow Adam throughout the entire ordeal as he has his first chemotherapy, gets high on weed-laced macaroons, and comes to terms with the probable outcome that he will die. The emphasis on Adam and the events in his life during his treatment put you in the mindset of someone in that situation. It is not a joyous, “to hell with rules” mindset but one of reason, despair, and sorrow.
On one hand, 50/50 is not a feel-good movie as it evokes many emotions that most (including myself) would disregard while watching a film. But it is not only a strong movie off the back of Gordon-Levitt’s great performance, but also one that can help you see the bright side in even the worst situation.