Cancer is a touchy subject. Make a joke about cancer, or someone with it, and people give you a look like you just punched an elderly woman in the face. To laugh about such a terrible disease seems inappropriate, so kudos to 50/50, the new (only?) cancer comedy, that reaches for the forbidden fruit and takes a big bite out of it. This is a movie with guts that is unafraid to use cancer as a comedic tool, but what many will find surprising is how delicately it’s handled. 50/50 doesn’t make light of cancer; that would be offensive. It treats it as it is and by the end, you’ll realize the joking was the only way these characters could have dealt with it. It’s a smart turnaround that, upon reflection, changes your perception of the movie. The more you think about it, the better it seems.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works at a Seattle public radio station. He’s a normal guy, just like anyone else. He has a girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen) and a clingy mother (Anjelica Huston). His life is fine, if uneventful, but it’s shaken up a bit when he finds out he has a very rare type of cancer. His chances of survival are 50%, which is better than most cancer sufferers get, so to fight it, he undergoes chemotherapy and attends therapy with the young Katie (Anna Kendrick), a doctor in training who, if you include Adam, has had a grand total of three patients.
Isolate that plot synopsis and 50/50 would appear to be a serious drama, but more often than not, it lets loose its silliness, including a great scene where Adam awkwardly tries to pick girls up at a bar by telling them he has cancer. Another example is when Kyle exploits Adam’s sickness to bag a date with a pretty girl at a bookstore. These things may seem wrong (especially the latter), but aside from a joke about the late Patrick Swayze, the film never crosses the line. It makes it okay to laugh about cancer, even if doing so feels kind of weird. It takes a deadly, incurable disease and knocks it down to size, treating it like something that deserves to be mocked.
In the midst of all the joking, it sometimes feels like 50/50 is forgetting to acknowledge the enormity of such a disease. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as capable of an actor as he is, doesn’t seem to be putting forth the emotion. It’s hard to tell whether his character is struggling with his diagnosis or has made peace with it. He seems more emotionally distraught when he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him than he does with the fact that he only has a 50% chance of living. It isn’t until the third act that the feeling finally comes through, but in retrospect, it seems appropriate. Adam is undeniably scared at the news, but is optimistic at first. He passes the news along to his family and friends and he dishes out more consolation than he receives. The gravity of the situation hasn’t yet sunk in. But as time goes on, his health starts to fail, he stops responding to the treatment and one of his chemotherapy buddies, who appeared to be healthy and happy, suddenly dies. Finally, with the awareness that he’s fast approaching death, he starts to break down and lose hope. To go any further would ruin it, but now that I’ve had the time to think about the film, I can’t see these events playing out any other way.
50/50 has a big heart and even though it takes the time to poke fun at cancer, it also acknowledges how scary it is, making it the most faithful depiction of the disease I can recall seeing in the movies. It follows an emotional path that seems authentic, though it’s one that hopefully none of us will ever have to test. 50/50 is one of those rare movies that can make you laugh with a tear in your eye and if you don’t see it, you’ll be missing out.
50/50 receives 4.5/5