The topic of cancer is never an easy subject to tackle. It’s rarely a positive thing and whenever a film tries to tackle the subject it usually ends on a low note, due to the depressing nature of it all. But, leave it to director Jonathan Levine to perfectly walk that line of comedy and drama. 50/50 is not a straight up drama nor is it a laugh out loud comedy, instead it can be described as a very authentic film.
The elements are very real and Levine depicts it in such a unique way, one that is so genuine and true. Levine’s skills as a director combined with three excellent performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick and even Seth Rogen, make 50/50 a truly remarkable film. It’s funny when it wants to be and serious when it has to be. It’s this perfect balance of comedy and drama that make 50/50 one of the best films of the year.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27 years old. He doesn’t drink, do drugs or smoke. He’s the type of guy that recycles and plays life to the safest point. He has a girlfriend who he cleans up after and a best friend that’s constantly cracking jokes at his expense. After visiting a doctor due to back pains, he is given horrible news, he has cancer and he has a 50/50 shot of living, hence the title. The film spends all of its running time following Adam and showing you how he deals with his new situation, from his interactions with friends, family and even other cancer patients.
50/50 shows us the real side of cancer. It lets us take a look at genuine human emotions and how cancer can cause different reactions from everyone. Some people find peace with themselves while others give up on hope, Adam sort of lands in the middle. He’s calm and always has a sense of humor, partially because of his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). Adam is so nice and considering that he offers his girlfriend a chance to straight up leave him because of his cancer, he is practically the nicest person you’d ever meet.
The reason 50/50 works so strongly is because of its leads and its director. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a very honest performance. He shows us that people can be extremely vulnerable and lonely. While Adam has friends and family to help him in his time of need, he can’t help but to feel alone. People get cancer and people die, Adam comes to terms with that at some point in the film and it doesn’t come off as someone giving up, but more as someone accepting what others are afraid to.
Adam’s best friend Kyle brings most of the humor to the film. Kyle is the type of friend that is always positive. If your friend has cancer then why not try and use that to score a few dates with the ladies? Why not convince your straight edge friend to finally smoke some weed now that he is terminally ill? It’s this type of friend that exists out in the real world that is never really shown in these sorts of films. Usually cancer films are very serious and they should be, but it was nice to see one with a more realistic approach. Director Jonathan Levine never pokes fun at such a sickness; he instead embraces it and shows us the real side of it.
Most of the jokes come from Seth Rogen and it’s no surprise. For some reason his best talent comes from films involving a main character having cancer. Funny People wasn’t all that great, but I thought Rogen did fine in the film and in 50/50 he manages to be even better. His character starts off as that stupid and silly friend who is always trying to make everything out to be a joke and he ends the film as a best friend who is always there for you no matter what. The transformation that Rogen goes through is quite unexpected. Clearly Rogen has more to him than simple sex and stoner jokes and only a talented director like Jonathan Levine could squeeze out such a performance.
Speaking of Levine, he’s responsible for directing All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and The Wackness. The first being a horror film starring Amber Heard and the second being a coming of age story set in New York City in 1994, starring Josh Peck.
Levine knows how to work with actors and get real performances out of them. His films never feel like big Hollywood productions or silly independent projects, instead they always feel like something real. The dialogue never comes off corny or like something “real” people wouldn’t say, the shots are always balanced with proper colors and the situations the characters face are never far-fetched.
This honest style and direction is something that translates very well with 50/50. Instead of focusing on one kid growing up in New York, he is able to focus on several characters all faced with a life changing thing like cancer. Adam isn’t the only one who is affected by cancer either; his peers around him all have to face this harsh reality with him. His mom already has a husband with Alzheimer. His best friend Kyle has no one else in the world that he cares about as much as Adam and even Adam’s new therapist Rachael (Anna Kendrick) cares about him on some level.
As good as Rogen and Gordon-Levitt are, Anna Kendrick steals the show as Rachael, the therapist. Rachael is a new therapist at the cancer center who is working her way up the ladder. She’s only had 2 patients before Adam and she’s still following protocol very closely. With Adam, she learns that not everything is as black and white as the textbooks make them out to be. Some life experiences are learned by human interaction and situations, not just by reading a book and listening to calm music.
She immediately finds some sort of connection with Adam and the film takes its time establishing this relationship. It’s because of the time taken that makes this relationship very meaningful. Levine explores both Adam and Rachael’s positives and negatives while they talk during Adam’s sessions. We slowly get a feeling for each person and how they perceive life and it really wraps up nicely towards the end.
Kendrick is best known for her performance as the go-getter in Up in the Air, opposite George Clooney and her role in 50/50 is both similar and different. She still has that quirkiness when delivering her dialogue. She’s a therapist who drives an unorganized car and has no experience with real people. In Up in the Air she came off as an overachiever and sort of an asshole, whereas in 50/50 she feels more like a person with flaws who is trying to do the best with what they got.
The chemistry in the film between the main characters is spot on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen honestly do give off that best friend vibe. The honesty between the two is refreshing. When Kyle finds out certain things about Adam’s girlfriend, he goes up and confronts him right away. He doesn’t sit on it or hold it out until later, like most films, he instead does what a real friend would do and tells him immediately. They’re the type of friends that never lie to each other and can always count on each other.
In addition to that relationship, the relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick definitely has sparks. You could tell from the first second they met that something was going to happen between the two, not just because of the obvious story but because they really communicated on the same level. You could almost describe their relationship as glowing, it just really felt strong and you couldn’t help but to hope for them to get together at the end.
You really have to appreciate a film like 50/50. In a world where we are either given silly comedies or serious dramas, Jonathan Levine manages to bring both together in perfect harmony for 50/50. Seth Rogen proves that he has what it takes to handle serious material in addition to his usual silliness and Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to impress with his strong and honest performance as the cancer stricken Adam.
As for Kendrick, she displays the same level of honesty as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while adding a strong feeling of emotional disconnection. Rachael doesn’t have cancer, but has to work with people who do every day and as a person, it can break you down, especially for someone as new in the field as herself. It’s the way Kendrick delivers the performance, which is subtle, truthful and sometimes even sad, that wins us over.
Those solid performances combined with Jonathan Levine‘s eye for real life situations help make 50/50 a winner in my book. It’s mainly a drama with lots of funny moments sprinkled in that really make it something special. The trailers market it as a simple comedy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a great example of a perfect cast coming together and delivering a knockout in all areas that count. 50/50 is a heartwarming story about learning what and who is important in life.