Films about life-threatening afflictions are sad by nature – but making them genuinely touching without feeling overly sentimental, on the other hand, takes a lot of skill. Not only does the cancer dramedy “50/50” achieve that, but even more impressively, it seamlessly balances that emotion with a hearty sense of humor.
In his best performance yet, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam Lerner, a healthy 27-year-old with a good job at the local NPR station, a nice house and a gorgeous girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) to share it with. Then after a trip to the doctor, Adam learns there’s a tumor growing on his lower spine. Suddenly, all his priorities change as he requires a cancer treatment with a 50 percent chance for survival.
The extremely dependable Gordon-Levitt stands among the best of today’s younger actors, and his mere presence has become a near guarantee of high quality. A far cry from his last role as an intimidating, apathetic metal-head in the indie film “Hesher,” the role of Adam offers a wide range of emotion, and Gordon-Levitt seizes this opportunity with nuance and vigorous focus.
Beginning the film as a pushover nice guy, he slowly evolves through the chemotherapy and sickness, in a sympathetic progression through weakness, depression and anger until ultimately developing an acceptance of his mortality. His sarcastic wit becomes more and more cynical, and his frailty advances in crippling him. When Adam lashes out in fury as he eventually breaks down, Gordon-Levitt’s emotionally-charged frustration is sure to make viewers tear up.
Best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) supports Adam throughout the whole process with humor and hope, becoming his caretaker after his girlfriend buckles under the pressure. In a more endearing performance than usual, Rogen still delivers the laughs, but this time around he’s not as obnoxious and there’s more dramatic weight in his friendship. He might seem fairly selfish at first, exploiting Adam’s cancer to get them laid and using marijuana to ease Adam’s suffering for them both, but he proves a worthy companion in the end.
Where that other Rogen dramedy about a life-threatening disease, “Funny People,” overloads on the depressing drama, Rogen imbues “50/50” with a lighter tone and he feels right at home here, partially because he lived the role in real life. Inspired by the cancer experience of the screenwriter, Rogen’s real-life best friend Will Reiser, the movie and the characters consistently sparkle with honesty.
Reiser scripts the proceedings with an enlightened understanding, never bogging the film down in too much sadness, while keeping the humor brisk and evenly paced. Even Adam’s realizations about his life, brought about by his assigned, newbie cancer therapist (Anna Kendrick, building on her charming timidity in “Up in the Air”), offer sharp insight, echoing from Reiser’s own cancer survival.
Director Jonathan Levine sublimely ties the experience together, eliciting universally strong performances from his cast and poignantly portraying the importance of the relationships in Adam’s life. Adam rejects his overbearing and worrisome mother (Anjelica Huston), and Levine handles Adam’s attempt at reconnecting to her with a somber, resonating delicacy.
More interesting, however, is the tender, light friendship Adam develops with two spirited old men (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) he goes through chemo with, and the appreciation for life they impart to him. That includes sharing pot-laced macaroons with Adam, which Levine shows with a fuzzy, hilarious and happy-go-lucky slo-mo stroll through the gloomy hospital halls.
Adam’s worsening condition builds his journey to a powerfully stirring climax, assured to ignite audience tear wells, and by the time it ends, “50/50” stands as one of the most fulfilling, emotionally intense movies this year. Gordon-Levitt’s achingly heartfelt, affecting performance isn’t always easy to stomach, but the bittersweet ride proves hugely rewarding.
Three and a Half out of Four Stars