Film Review: 50/50 tackles cancer with humor, honesty

Mixing cancer with comedy seems like a recipe for disaster, but director Jonathan Levine comes out on top with his first wide-release film 50/50, a tale of a young man’s sudden, grim diagnosis.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a healthy 27-year-old working as a producer for a radio station in Seattle, Wa. He has a live-in girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a jocular best friend and co-worker, Kyle (Seth Rogen), and lives a fairly uncomplicated life – until he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given a 50 percent chance of survival.

Adam’s life falls apart after the diagnosis: he begins chemotherapy, his girlfriend starts to pull away from him and his mother (Angelica Huston), already taking care of a husband with Alzheimer’s disease, becomes overbearing and smothering. He goes through anger, apathy and confusion as he balances life and death, learning along the way truths about himself, his friends and his family as well as the value of life.

Gordon-Levitt excels in his portrayal of Adam, expertly capturing with his body language the extensive mood swings and hopelessness of this chemotherapy patient. His subtle movements show his physical weakening as well as the slipping of his mind as he progresses further into his treatment.

After the diagnosis, Adam begins talking to an inexperienced therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) as well as two other cancer patients, Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall). It is here that Adam gets most of his support, venting his frustrations, coming to terms with his disease and learning how to live knowing that he only has a 50 percent chance of seeing his next birthday.

While the film is about living with a deadly disease, it’s still a comedy, featuring zingy one-liners and raunchy jokes. Adam’s best friend Kyle is the jester of the film, constantly wisecracking even during some of the more serious moments. The comic relief is effective, off-setting the gloomy reality of the situation for both Adam and the audience. Rogen works well for this role and while it is nothing he has not done a dozen times already, it is something he does well and he keeps the audience laughing.

The film’s only pitfalls are the characters of Adam’s mother and girlfriend. Both are clichéd: the mother who cares too much and the manipulative girlfriend. Their presence on-screen is not engaging and their actions are stereotypical and predictable.

Will Reiser wrote the script based on the story of his own cancer diagnosis. Reiser, who worked alongside Rogen on “Da Ali G Show” at the time, based the relationship between Adam and Kyle on the relationship he had with Rogen during his treatment.

50/50 is part buddy comedy, part drama, but all heart – a tearjerker in disguise. It will surely steal a few nominations this upcoming awards season.