IT TAKES A PAIR TO BEAT THE ODDS.
Seth Rogen was apparently in the bathroom when one of his best friends called to tell him that he had cancer. A potentially funny scene that never made it into Will Reiser’s script. He was the one who called; after beating his rare but operable cancer, he decided to write a screenplay that also featured a best friend as a sidekick. Who would better play the role than Rogen himself? One of Hollywood’s archetypal “best buddies”, he is obviously a perfect fit for a part that is unexpectedly grounded in reality.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for a radio station and has created a very safe life for himself. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He exercises, treats others with kindness and always waits for the green light before crossing a street. Sure, he and his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) are not really having sex, which is a warning sign, but their relationship seems at least… comfortable. When he sees a doctor for the back pain that he’s been having for a while, everything changes. It turns out that Adam has a rare type of cancer and he needs to start chemotherapy as soon as possible; the survival odds are so-so. When he tells Rachael, he also offers her a way out, which she refuses.
His mother (Anjelica Huston) doesn’t take the news well, as expected, but her attempts to help him only makes Adam feel like she’s smothering him. Hanging out with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is easier, even though he’s obsessed with getting laid. As Adam begins his treatment, he meets other patients who also make a difference in his life…
Raw, realistic, rarely crass
Director Jonathan Levine previously made the instantly forgettable thriller All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) and the highly entertaining drama The Wackness (2008) – this film definitely shows greatness on his part. Taking on the difficult balance between teary drama and raucous comedy is about as challenging as it gets for a filmmaker, but Levine gets away with it. Reiser certainly lays the foundation, drawing from the awful but enriching experience of surviving the illness and at the same time treating its absurd aspects with just the right sense of humor – raw, realistic but rarely crass. And then Levine finds the right tone in each and every sequence, even the one where Adam shaves his head bald, a scene that was actually improvised on set.
Finding the right cast helps. I’ve already mentioned Rogen. His presence could have been a turn-off, but he’s very funny and immensely sympathetic as a person who doesn’t know how to relate to his friend’s new situation but is still always willing to stand by him. Even better is Gordon-Levitt, who delivers yet another exceptional performance as Adam who tries to handle the big C rationally even though there is nothing rational about why he should have to go through it. Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer are great in small roles as cancer patients… and then there is Huston, who is so moving as the mother, instantly ready to make her son’s recovery part of a life mission that already includes nursing her Alzheimer-afflicted husband.
The only character that looks a little too much like a romcom creation is Anna Kendrick’s therapist, who’s had only two patients prior to Adam.
Maybe I was especially touched by the film because of several traits I share with Adam; he is truly relatable. Some viewers are likely to criticize the film for not being original or smart enough, but it knows exactly how to make you laugh and cry… and think about how your life would change the day you realize that every precaution was for naught.
50/50 2011-U.S. 100 min. Color. Produced by Evan Goldberg, Ben Karlin, Seth Rogen. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Screenplay: Will Reiser. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam Lerner), Seth Rogen (Kyle), Anna Kendrick (Katherine McKay), Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde.
Trivia: James McAvoy was first cast as Adam, but dropped out.
Quote: “You smell like you fucked the cast of ‘The View’.” (Rogen smelling Gordon-Levitt’s new shampoo)
Last word: “We talked a lot about some Hal Ashby movies, we talked about ‘The Last Detail’. For me, I really wanted to ground it in like the specificity of being a young person, and I felt like that was a perspective that I could bring to the table more than a lot of directors because I’m younger than a lot of some directors. For me, the most compelling thing to me was what’s it like to be 27 and find out you have a 50% chance of living, and you haven’t even lived yet?” (Levine, Collider)