Sometimes things don’t go as they were planned. Sometimes we have to deal with the last thing we want to worry about. Sometimes when shit hits the fan, the people we least expect come to the rescue and people we trust fall away in selfishness. 50/50 explores what happens when people are forced to deal with an illness of a loved one. How do you put in the right amount of worry without making the ill feel like a tremendous burden?
50/50 tells the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27 year-old diagnosed with rare cancer. As the story unfolds, it’s not only about a guy with cancer or about where to find humor in seriousness but also how Adam deals with his disease while trying even harder to deal with the people around him.
Adam and his best friend, Kyle (played convincingly by Seth Rogen), occupy the majority of screen time. They have unique chemistry. As a classic jokester to Gordon-Levitt’s straight man, Rogen generally comes off as the immature brother type, too selfish to help emotionally but too caring to dare leave your side. Only on occasion does Rogen’s banter push forced or inappropriate, a refreshing leap forward for the actor.
The real breakthrough comes from Anna Kendrick as Katherine, now firmly in the “whatshername” category of good actresses. Katherine’s scenes as Adam’s psychologist in training run the risk of being droll but instead burst off the screen with sincerity within utter discomfort. Nothing Katherine does feels written, often her stumbling insecurity and strict adherence to psychologist’s code relate a do-good girl trapped within her own self-imposed contradictions. A lesser actress could have simply played the writing to a flat effect.
Trudging through the plot with sorrowful scared eyes and a thin grin begging you to believe he’s “fine,” Gordon-Levitt steals the show. It’s a breakout role in a career seemingly full of breakthrough roles. This one should garner Gordon-Levitt the type of praise he’s been expecting to obtain for years. Contrary to lesser scripts, Gordon-Levitt isn’t afforded the dialogue to overtly say precisely what he feels. He is expected to wear every emotion on his face, even when the only thing Adam wants to do most is shrink inside himself and hide everything. Throughout 50/50, Gordon-Levitt makes difficult choices like his aggressive fright just before he goes into surgery. At moments like these, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t burst into tears or scream, “I’m really scared now!” Instead Adam squeezes his mother with everything in his body as he sinks into the nauseating reality of what lay ahead.
The only unfortunate misstep of the storytelling comes in the form of Adam’s girlfriend played by Bryce Dallas Howard. No doubt, there are those so selfish that they run from the pressure of caring for loved ones in dire need. However, the choice to make her unfaithful seemed like a missed opportunity to make a very real comment on the evil inside some people. More interesting would have been if she simply couldn’t stand the idea of spending her mid-20’s with a dying person. This would have been cold, sinister and utterly self-centered but entirely real. Her leaving him high and dry would have been a challenging script choice but one that would have felt far more organic than an angle of infidelity that felt like a basic cliché trope. Howard’s infidelity plays only for cheap laughs (the revelation scene being one where Rogen’s unbearable side is unleashed) and unearned audience applause (when Adam says, “Get the fuck off my porch.”). Unfortunately the girlfriend angle impedes on much of the first half of 50/50, distracting from more compelling character developments.
As a culture, we are fearful of death. We are so well distracted that when the dreadful occurs the vast majority won’t have the slightest clue about the right thing to say or do. As a result, we go to moneymaking ventures like support groups or we buy “dealing with cancer” books. What 50/50 attempts to teach is that all we really need to do is be us and be there, warts and all.
50/50 isn’t only a comedy about cancer as a disease. Its also a comedy about cancer as a euphemism, like, “Cancer in the clubhouse” or “Cancer in the workplace.” Cancer could have been substituted for virtually anything because the disease itself is only part of the point. 50/50 is about an idea that sometimes things go wrong and we need to wake up to deal with them. Mostly 50/50 is about coping with what we can never really understand no matter what the percentages report or lists tells us. The results are a picture always teetering on the brink of sentimentality but consistently making choices that never let it take the plunge. 50/50 tells us that it’s really, really hard to be strong and we really do need others. We don’t need people to say the right thing, just put their hand on our arm and assure us they will be there (in that unforced sort of way).