Perfectly captures the surreal nature of cancer

* * * * * (Out of 6)

Cancer. The word itself brings forth certain images and feelings of misery and death. But even more than that, it brings forth a battery of questions: ‘When?’, ‘How?’, ‘What kind?’ and finally ‘What are the chances of survival?’ It’s the unknown that really throws us for a loop (and it is through personal experience that I can attest to this, as my mother was very recently diagnosed) as we struggle to comprehend it all.

With this in mind, consider Will Reiser, who is not only a first-time screenwriter but also submits a comedic script about a guy battling cancer. I can only imagine the studioÂ’s initial reaction over this type of story proposal. If this type of story was to work at all, you would have to assume that it must be very personal. That the story is comedic and funny in nature – but still moving, relevant and respectful to its subject – is a testament to both its writer and its director Jonathan Levine.

50/50 is the story of Adam (Gordon-Levitt) a 27-year-old recycler who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer with a survival rate of 50 percent. Hence the movie’s title but as Rogen’s Kyle encourages: “If he were a casino game he would have the best odds.” The movie then follows Adam as he copes not only with his disease, treatment and his feelings about both, but with the varied reactions of his best friend Kyle (Rogen), his ill-prepared girlfriend (Howard), his smothering mother (Huston), and his assigned shrink-in-training (Kendrick).

Gordon-Levitt, continues to distance himself from that dorky looking sitcom kid from so long ago ago. After excellent turns in (500) Days of Summer and Inception, he gives a masterfully subtle performance here. His struggle is palpable and believable. Rogen, who is also a producer, plays the oafish best friend (the Seth Rogen role) that we are so used to him playing. Thankfully he is reined in just enough by director Levine to not pull the film out of balance. But he still delivers some great comedic moments. 

There are others in the cast also deserving of praise. Huston is terrifically subdued as Adam’s worried mother. As Katherine tells Adam, she is in a tough spot as she “has a husband she can’t talk to [he has Alzheimer’s] and a son who won’t talk to her”. She displaces the anguish of a mother unable to do anything for her son – or her husband for that matter. While in smaller roles as fellow chemo patients, Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer help emphasise the true nature of the disease while bringing added depth to the film.

It is a great script by Reiser (a guy with mostly TV comedy special producer credits), and well directed by Levine (The Wackness). The movieÂ’s ability to go from serious life and death type talk to a comedic moment is brilliant. And as someone dealing with the situation personally, 50/50 resonated long after I had left the theatre. Above all else, 50/50 brings believability to the big screen for a situation all too common place in our world today.

The ability to get laughs out of an illness so devastating must be difficult, and getting them without being cheesy or forced is a true work of genius. Thanks to its strong cast, quality direction and down-to-earth believable script, 50/50 has a surprisingly good vibe and makes for an excellent night out at the movies.


Dir: Jonathan Levine

US dramedy, 2011, 100 mins

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston

Premiered November 24

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