The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1 out of every 2 American men and 1 out of every 3 American women will have a type of cancer at some point during their lifetime. Half of all American males will get cancer… In the interest of full disclosure, I am a male and a 24-year cancer survivor, which, I suppose, slightly helps your odds if you’re a Y-chromosome carrier living in the States. (You’re welcome. )
And, incidentally, those are two key things cancer patients regularly obsess over during the grueling, soul-crushing ordeal: their cursed genetics and the gloomy statistics.
50/50. That’s the general prognosis delivered to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in this aptly-titled “dramedy” about a young man’s struggle to beat the big C. An arbitrary figure, to be clear, but one that adequately drives home the point that Will Reiser’s somewhat autobiographical story could go either way. (In reality, 50% is rather lucky compared to the dire outlook if his rare spinal cancer had metastasized – spread – where the survival rates shrink to single digits and this films spirals into a Terms of Endearment-esque sobfest.)
But the Jonathan Levine-directed movie wobbles the tightrope between comedy and tragedy, split evenly (about 50/50) between jokey riffs on Adam’s crippling illness and a healthy sensitivity for his serious situation. Reiser’s script includes poignant moments of self-reflection, but any time the plot seems headed into mawkish territory, Adam’s loyal stoner friend Kyle (Seth Rogen essentially playing himself) injects some dark humor that bounces any woe-is-me sentimentality back to cathartic chuckles.
Because as much as this movie is about Adam’s internal struggles and Gordon-Levitt’s well-acted arc through stages of denial, frustration, fear and acceptance, Reiser’s story celebrates his caregivers, those crucial few who lend their support in the face of adversity.
Yet even the characters themselves exhibit that thematic dichotomy. Rogen shows a softer side as Adam’s closest chum, even if its preceded by his attempts to lure women with the “sick guy” routine. The adorable Anna Kendrick is a hopeful voice as Katherine, his young therapist, though she bumbles her way into a cutesy will-they or won’t-they subplot. Bryce Dallas Howard tackles the thankless role as Rachael, Adam’s girlfriend whose loyalty wavers. As fellow patients, Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall provide some strong dramatic weight, and a little medicinal marijuana. But perhaps the most touching scene is one shared between Adam and his doting mother (Anjelica Huston) in the doctor’s office, when the real emotions behind her nagging concern hit them both.
However, in aiming for punchlines and usually steering clear of too much teary melodrama, it feels as though sections are missing from 50/50‘s 99 minutes. The advertised head-shaving scene and bong hits to curb his nausea are funny takes on the darkness of chemotherapy, but these and other horrific effects are glossed over in order to keep it light. Meanwhile, realistic moments when Adam wallows in self-pity are gut-wrenching, but quickly replaced by Rogen’s goofy mug. Ultimately, the highs and lows feel like a series of half-measures, which results in a movie that is often funny and sometimes sad, but rarely great at being either one.
In the end, I cried. But I’m neither manly nor a reliable barometer for your own waterworks since this hits rather close to home. Chances are, you or someone you know has also been affected by cancer, which should only make this therapeutic true story more bittersweet.
4 out of 5.