Hollywood loves making movies about people struggling with deadly diseases, whether it’s the race against time in “Contagion” or tearjerkers like “Love Story” and “Beaches,” in which the characters who contract cancer wring emotion out of every heartbreaking moment.
Neither end of this spectrum, however, seems interested in telling the truth about cancer, which has impacted the lives of everyone who’s had a relative or friend die from the disease. What is rare is when a film on the normally depressing subject nails the confusing mix of fear, loneliness, hope, bonding and gallows humor that become part of the real-life experience.
The new movie “50/50” does a superb job of managing these complex emotions in intelligent, touching and at times very funny ways. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“(500) Days of Summer”) as a Seattle-based NPR radio writer named Adam and Seth Rogen (“Knocked Up”) as his best friend Kyle, the film has cancer sneak up on the audience in much the way it subtly surprises Adam.
Fit, clean-living and in his 20s, Adam loves to take long runs through the city. But lately, he’s been having unusual pains in his back. Finally checking in with a doctor, Adam learns that he has a rare form of spinal cancer and has just a 50/50 chance to survive. It’s news that shakes up everyone, freaking out his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and leading his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) to attempt to step up their relationship by moving in to take care of him.
But Kyle has a different way of dealing with it all, encouraging Adam to use his disease as a sympathetic hook to help Kyle meet women. He also tries to be indefatigably positive, telling Adam that 50/50 odds would be exceptional in Vegas, and it’s Kyle’s mix of dark humor and unfailing support that forms the heart of the story — along with Adam’s relationship with a new grief counselor (Anna Kendrick).
Thanks to its stellar cast and powerful script by Will Reiser, “50/50” gets the delicate balance of humor and sadness 100 percent right. How did Reiser pull it off? He’s a cancer survivor himself and he based his script on how his real-life best friend Seth Rogen helped him through his hardships.
The only potential downside for some viewers might be Rogen’s highly pro-fane rapid-fire patter, something he’s applied in all of his films. Personally, I love his shtick. Plus, he has grown in his ability to nail serious moments with aplomb as well.
Helmed by director Jonathan Levine, who put a fresh spin on coming-of-age clichés with his debut feature “The Wackness,” “50/50” has enough hope, humor and humanity to beat the odds and draw viewers in as a disease film, a unique romance and, most of all, a tale of a young man learning to be a better person in the face of some pretty bleak circumstances.