Whoever was responsible for christening this funny movie about a serious disease did not have an enviable task. Jonathan Levine‘s 50/50 went through a number of name changes before landing on that vague final figure (the numeric representation of a shrug). First called I’m With Cancer, it was then retitled to Live With It, and then, as the producers pow-wowed, let it exist briefly with the temporary – but admirably direct! – label Untitled Cancer Comedy. This movie went through titles faster than Homer Simpson experienced the five stages of grieving. Though I can sympathise with anyone cautious of seeing a light-hearted film about the very thing all human beings are terrified of, 50/50 is good enough to encourage people to confront their fears and laugh about death (and life) for at least 100 minutes.
Based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experience battling the disease, 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as softly-spoken radio producer and no-getter Adam. His fairly unspectacular world is turned upside down when he discovers a large tumour growing on his spine. He’s subjected to chemotherapy treatments, and, even more painfully, winds up on the receiving end of an endless stream of pity from people who’d never before given him the time of day. Adam’s artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) reveals herself to be wildly ill-equipped for the task of taking care of him, while his mother’s (Anjelica Huston) brand of concern leads to some mild smothering. As Adam slowly freaks out about his state (and perhaps eventual lack of state), he finds he can only turn to his kind-hearted but crass buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen, Reiser’s real life friend and producer), and an inexperienced young counsellor (Anna Kendrick) for help.
Gordon-Levitt’s performance is wonderfully calibrated; warmly funny and subtle, eventually erupting into a fit of anger and terror in the picture’s climactic and best scene. Rogen, Kendrick and Huston all offer exemplary support (much better than their characters, anyway), though Howard – who is indeed good here – should ask her agent to book her less roles in which she has to play a terrible person.
For all of the attention 50/50 has gotten for being the ‘cancer comedy‘, it’s received not nearly enough praise for being so moving and emotionally satisfying. Much of the comic situations hinge on Rogen’s traditional – but still effective – brand of humour, and less on the semi-comic nuances of being sick. Where Reiser’s experience pays off is in his ability to convey the fear felt by the film’s subject, and shared by the audience (Adam’s pleas for his mother’s comfort in the final act will be unsettling, tear-inducing viewing for most). Levine’s tender directorial touch – much better than on the loosy-goosy stoner flick The Wackness - complement’s Reiser’s script perfectly. It’s a lovely, wide-eyed screenplay that yearns for life in the face of death; 50/50 feels like the work of a new artist who not only lived with it, but also lived so that he could tell us all about it.
50/50 opens exclusively at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne on March 8, 2012.