Film Review: 50/50

Six years ago, at the age of 25, screenwriter Will Reiser was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. 50/50 is loosely based on the real life trials that followed and the result is a cancer comedy that will inevitably draw comparisons to 2009’s Funny People.

But while Funny People never seemed to know what tone it was trying to set, 50/50 finds exactly the right blend of warm-hearted humour (and the occasional dick joke) and touching sentiment to leave the viewer completely satisfied.

Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), it tells the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old nice-guy – the type of guy who waits at pedestrian crossings when out jogging in the early morning even when the road is deserted – who works as a writer for radio. After suffering from persistent back pain he goes to his doctor and is diagnosed with cancer.

Crucial to making the film work, and so unlike Adam Sandler’s unsympathetic George Simmons in Funny People, 50/50’s Adam is the everyman that everyone can relate to.

And Gordon-Levitt produces a brilliantly understated performance. He does a fantastic job of expressing feelings of quiet resolve at the same time as those of increasing isolation, maintaining a steady calm for most of the film that simply feels real and making the moment he cracks all the more heart-rending.

But this film is not so much about how the individual copes when they are diagnosed with cancer as it is about how it affects those around them.

Adam’s girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) pledges to stand by her boyfriend for the difficult months that lie ahead, but becomes a target of contempt when her eye begins to stray. Her character is entirely human but is handled with complete distain, even when she is trying to do the right thing, perhaps not quite ringing true.

The response of Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is one of jest and partying, and it is Rogen who provides most of the laughs. But despite being his usual loud-mouth, wise-cracking, weed-smoking self (by no means a bad thing) there is real heart in his performance – not a surprise when you consider he went through exactly the same thing with Reiser, a close friend.

Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) copes with the situation as any mother would, by worrying, suffocating her son and pushing him away by doing so – but it is the mother-son relationship that gives rise to the film’s most poignant scenes.

Anna Kendrick is on typically solid form as Adam’s inexperienced therapist Katherine, while Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer provide laughs and one particularly shattering reality check as older cancer patients who Adam befriends.

In many ways these two characters sum up what makes 50/50 such a delight to watch – without being overly sentimental and always maintaining a sense of humour it gets to the core of what cancer can do to us and those around us, and the dreadful loss that can come from it.

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