Cancer's a total bitch. So how exactly do 50/50 writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine manage to wring such an honest, heartfelt, and, yes, funny movie out of such a destructive disease? With a smart script, a great cast, and a sensitive approach to the proceedings.
Reiser's story chronicles his own struggle with spinal cancer and features his real-life friend, Seth Rogen. So you're dealing with some very personal material here, but everyone involved feeds off their dedication, turning 50/50 into a universal and universally funny piece.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old news radio producer with an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a neat-freak personality, and a pretty good life overall. He takes care of himself (he's the kind of guy who waits for the "walk" sign during his morning jog). But persistent back pain sends him to the doctor, who gives him the bad news like he's rattling off box scores. Turns out Adam has a rare spinal tumor that, according to an online health site Adam turns to, offers a 50 percent survival rate. "If you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds," his optimistic pal Kyle (Rogen) tells him.
With the help of a very sweet but very inexperienced therapist-in-training (Anna Kendrick), Adam takes the first steps to dealing with his cancer. He buddies up with a pair of older chemotherapy patients (including a pot-smoking Philip Baker Hall) and shaves his head, which Gordon-Levitt actually does on camera while Rogen cringes, telling his pal he looks like "fuckin' Michael Stipe."
The people around Adam deal with it differently. His girlfriend can't adjust to her new responsibilities and cheats on him. And Kyle takes advantage of his friend's illness, picking up girls using the sympathy card. He encourages Adam to do the same, calling cancer "your hook. It's what sets you apart."
Rogen is great playing the most humane character of his career, a man who pretty much turns out to be a slight variation on Rogen himself. He's a devoted pal looking out for his sick friend, even when he's using him to get laid. But it's Gordon-Levitt — after nailing both a romantic comedy and an action movie in the past two years — who gets to show off what a great actor he's become since his 3rd Rock From the Sun days. He gives a funny, empathetic performance, going through all the stages of his illness — from denial to anger — without ever slipping into self-pity. It's one of the year's best.
There's a good reason movies set out to make you either laugh or cry, but rarely dare to do both. You can probably rattle off a dozen films that have pulled it off. But if it's almost impossible to find the perfect balance, 50/50 hits that special place.