Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
Oct. 4, 2011
There are plenty of over-done comedic sub-genres out there. There’s the raunchy comedy, the romantic comedy, the buddy comedy. But the cancer comedy? That’s one I haven’t heard before.
50/50, a new film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and SethRogen, tackles this rather macabre subject. What’s funny in a film about cancer? Well, a whole lot, actually.
Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old yuppy working for public radio who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. His chances of recovery? 50/50. Adam is completely blindsided by his sudden illness but is helped along by his brash, unapologetic best friend Kyle (Rogen). Though Kyle’s primary objective seems to be helping Adam use the sympathy card to get laid, his honest, forthright personality is endearing. Kyle’s shining moment comes when he snags a photo of Adam’s girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) kissing another man and goes on a hilarious tirade against her. Rogen provides most of the film’s comedic moments, including his many jokes about Adam’s diseased appearance.
Adam, on the other hand, goes through much of the film in a numb, drowsy fog, a state that he refers to as “fine” and that his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) terms as “shock.” It is clear from the first scene between Adam and Katherine that the two will become more than friends by the end of the film, despite the fact that their initial interaction is so awkward it’s painful. Kendrick doesn’t seem to be much more than a placeholder for the requisite romantic interest that all Hollywood movies must contain. An actress with stronger comedic chops would have been more suited to the role. Instead, Kendrick falls flat next to Gordon-Levitt and Rogen. Veteran film actress Anjelica Huston, as Adam’s mother, however is wonderful in her role as the silently grieving matriarch.
Gordon-Levitt, the star of the film, gives a terrific performance as well. Adam’s disbelief slowly turns to acceptance, then rage and fear as his situation worsens. A scene late in the film, in which Adam admits that he believes he will die, is beautiful in its willingness to confront the audience. 50/50 doesn’t back down from its premise that Adam could very well succumb to his cancer, and Gordon-Levitt, though he is as charming and adorable as ever, doesn’t back down either.
At the film’s climax, the movie’s most powerful scene, he locks himself in his car and lets out a primal scream, hitting the wheel and dashboard savagely. His fury appears real, and when he later says he thinks he may have “broken his larynx,” I believed that Gordon-Levitt meant it.
One other moment that is equally touching is Adam’s relationship with two elderly chemotherapy patients, Mitch and Alan (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall, respectively). Together, these three men share the hardest aspects of their diseases. Their scenes are also some of the funniest in the entire film.
50/50‘s realism is due in large part to its writer, Will Reiser (Da Ali G Show). 50/50 is Reiser’s semi-autobiographical account of his own battle with spinal cancer, for which he underwent chemotherapy and, eventually, surgery in 2005 when he was 25 years old. Rogen and Reiser are good friends, and Rogen essentially plays a larger-than-life version of himself in 50/50. Though there are elements of the film that are fictional, some of its funniest scenes, such as Adam’s going-away party from work, are taken from Reiser’s actual experiences.
50/50 is more than just a funny film. It strikes a balance between poignancy and comedy. It may make you cry, and it will definitely make you laugh. Cancer touches the lives of most people. It is, sadly, a fact of life. Reiser’s choice to use his experiences to create a comedy, however, is a rare example of how humor can help us cope with the most difficult events in our lives. 50/50 may just put the cancer comedy on the map.