Tragedy can be kind of a funny thing, if you think long enough about it. So much of people’s lives are devoted to presentation of control; be it of a situation, of a job, of emotions, et cetera. So the fact that a single event can tear all that down and strip one of their control carries a really dark, somewhat sinister irony about it. “50/50” explores that in the most appropriate way possible — with a heavy dosage of humor, some moments of genuine heartbreak and poignancy, and brownies laced with cannabis. It’s a good time to be had at the movies.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the man whose life rapidly unravels, with the shocking revelation that he has a severe form of spinal cancer. See, he’s a 20-something health nut with a steady if shady girlfriend and a goofball best friend; played by the only guy I can think of who deserves his absurdly-expensive paychecks to show up in movies, laugh and get high. Yes, friends, Seth Rogen is in this film, and his loose comedic energy provides a lot of the film’s surprisingly frequent laughter.
The chance of survival Gordon-Levitt has makes up the title of the film, and to be sure, “50/50” dives very deep into the confusion and hurt that his character, Adam is feeling. But “50/50” is just as much about the effect his disease has on other people, and the brilliant supporting cast bring both believability and humor to their roles. Rogen does well essentially playing a variant on himself in real life — see, he’s good friends with screenwriter Will Reiser, whose script here is based on his own experiences of getting cancer at a young age.
Anjelica Huston is perfect as Adam’s hopelessly if adorably dependent mother. Bryce Dallas Howard continues making a name for herself in Hollywood playing unsympathetic girlfriend-characters, and the veteran Philip Baker Hall is hilarious as a fellow cancer-patient with a fondness for all things cannabis.
Anna Kendrick, whose career build-up continues in the wake of roles in “Up in the Air” and the “Twilight” films, hits just the right notes as Adam’s therapist who wants to maintain a degree of distance from her, admittedly, very good-looking patient. Gordon-Levitt’s status as one of the best-looking men in Hollywood, admittedly, compromises the film’s believability on one occasion — he has a hard time picking up girls at a local bar. If there’s any female (or for that matter, male) readers who aren’t in love with Gordon-Levitt, I demand an explanation.
There’s a moment towards the end where our lead, who’s been fairly composed up to this point, lets out a furious scream. As an audience member, all through the film I’d been laughing with his character, but it’s in this little 10-second beat that I realized how deeply I felt for him. The subtle ways in which writer-director Jonathon Levine builds that up for us — believable supporting characters, convincing interactions, and constant deviation from movie formula to create a more honest, open tone — go a long way towards setting it apart from the majority of films in this genre, and probably this year. Refreshingly unpretentious, and satisfying on all levels. Oscar voters, take note. A-