50/50 Review

Film Still
  • 50/50 film still


Big laughs and small dramas. Heavy touch and light impact.

Will Reiser was in his early twenties and working as a writer on Da Ali G Show when he was diagnosed with cancer. 50/50 is his cathartic, fictionalised and very funny account of the experience, written under the stewardship of exec producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. But if their influence can be felt in the film’s unexpected and generous laughs, it’s also there in its failure to balance that humour with human drama.

That’s not to say that 50/50 isn’t an emotional ride, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt staring soulfully into the middle distance as Adam, a nail-biting, pussy-whipped neurotic who, to his shock and horror (“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I recycle”), is diagnosed with the Big C.

His journey through the gruelling stages of chemo, hair loss, grief, despair and rejuvenation is never less than compelling and is handled by director Jonathan Levine with a devil-may-care brio that tiptoes the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

But there are two different films here – or at least two separate tones – moving in parallel without ever actually cohering. The first is an unabashed bromantic comedy in which Seth Rogen takes centre stage as Adam’s best mate Kyle, who refuses to see his friend as a victim and instead uses Adam’s cancer as the perfect excuse to hit on girls. And so Rogen gets all the juicy lines, giving full vent to that shaggy charisma and shamelessly stealing scene after scene until, eventually, you realise he’s just mugged the entire film.

With Rogen off screen, that second film is allowed to emerge, and it turns out to be an often quite touching if somewhat uneven cancer drama that hits all the usual movie beats (girlfriend who can’t take the pressure; therapist falling for patient; pop music as an emotional crutch), but nevertheless manages to introduce a note of quiet tenderness in the final third.

Credit for that goes in large part to Anjelica Huston, who really nails the delicate mixture of pathos, warmth and vulnerability needed to tie the script’s disparate parts together. Mother to a cancer patient and wife of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, Diane is the subject of the film’s sharpest observations but also its most sympathetic moments. And while Anna Kendrick’s turn as a young therapist is bogged down by clichés, at least it offers her the opportunity to display a smile that slips effortlessly from brittle to dazzling and back again.

Indeed, Adam – with his shaved head and hollow eyes – is the only character who isn’t hiding behind a mask; whether it’s blokey bonhomie, professional concern or parental strength. 50/50’s mask is a patchwork of stylised slo-mo, Radiohead and marijuana gags designed to convince you that it’s anything but a run-of-the-mill drama. And yet, weirdly, despite all the posturing and protesting, the film’s conventional moments are actually its best.

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