50/50 (2011)

Directed by Jonathan Levine


50/50 is one of my go to “feel good” movies, which is strange considering it’s a story about cancer.  The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 27 year old radio reporter and ardent follower of rules.  Adam goes to the doctor one day and quickly learns of his complicated diagnosis.  The rest of the film shows how the disease affects Adam’s personal life, relationships and explores the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

The film was written by Will Reiser, friend of Seth Rogen who encouraged him to write the screenplay and who co-stars as Kyle, Adam’s best friend and occasional slacker.  The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen is the emotional heart of the movie.  Kyle and Adam have been friends since high school, they work together, and much of the film is treated like any other Seth Rogen-led stoner comedy.

Kyle is basically any of the other characters Rogen has played, and 50/50 impressively, endearingly balances this with a heartfelt, grounded story about a variety of relationships.  Near the end of the film there is a gut-wrenching moment involving Adam and his mom (Anjelica Huston), and it’s one of those perfectly cinematic moments where everything works in tandem to create such a strong, chilling sense of emotion.

At the same time there are scenes in which Adam and Kyle sit around and smoke pot or make the same somewhat juvenile jokes as you’d expect from comedies aimed at fifteen year olds.  50/50 might be one of those movies for people of all ages as it covers so much ground.  It’s hilarious and deeply touching, and I have to imagine that the autobiographical nature of the film helped translate this to the script.

In many tragic situations there is some amount of humor.  A movie like 2016’s Manchester By the Sea balanced its deep despair with comedy, and a movie like Sideways keeps its characters honest by portraying their depression through a comic filter.  The result isn’t a comedy or a tragedy but something resembling real life.

50/50 begins with a joke.  Adam runs through the streets of Seattle (but shot in Vancouver), and when he reaches a stoplight he waits, reluctant to jaywalk even when the street is deserted.  Someone quickly races by him, but Adam waits for the light to turn green.  We know this is a man who will soon learn he has cancer, and this painful adherence to the rules undercuts the absurdity and unpredictability of this disease.  Adam’s strict rules-following nature is made to be a cruel joke.

The rest of the movie is occasionally very funny, but it presents every character and relationship with empathy and honest, except for maybe Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Her infidelity and general flakiness makes her the only unlikeable character in the movie (even if there’s a subtle explanation for why she behaves the way she does), but her role is to enhance the friendship between Kyle and Adam.

Anyways, I just really love this movie.  It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, and we all need those kinds of movies.  50/50 is life-affirming.  It takes a situation and a few normal but at times strained relationships and suggests that it’s all okay because we’re here for you when you need it most.

Kyle and Adam have a healthy friendship, but Adam keeps his friend at arm’s length, shaking his head at how crass Kyle can be and the way he seemingly uses Adam’s disease to pick up women.  In the end, Kyle is there for his friend, and Adam realizes just how much support is behind him.

Similarly, the film explores Adam’s relationship with his mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston).  It feels like a pretty realistic depiction of a parent-child relationship, particularly as the child as grown into adulthood.  Adam rebuffs his mother’s overbearing affection, keen on asserting his own independence, but what he soon learns is that his mother needs to play that role, to let him let her help him and that he needs that kind of affection too.  As I touched on earlier, the most affecting part of the movie concerns the mother-son embrace.

Finally, there is another love interest, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), the hospital-appointed therapist Adam begins to see after his diagnosis.  Katherine is a med student, and Adam is only her third patient.  They each stumble through these sessions but begin to bond, leading to a heartwarming utterance of “I bet you’d be a good one,” which really got to me.  Damn, man, this movie.

So 50/50 is a neat movie, and maybe that will bother some people.  It presents a real world situation with realistic characters (though it again short changes the Rachael character, making her more of a sinister punchline to better serve the plot), but in the end it is all neatly wrapped up with a bow on top.  Which is fine, because it made me feel good.  It’s the ending I wanted to see, and it presents an optimistic view of the world.  People repair tenuous relationships, and we all march on, you know?

More movies need to be made like this.  They don’t push the boundaries or even stand out in a specific, technical way, but they’re just well-made and filled with heart.  This is a movie that would matter even if it wasn’t quite this good because you can tell it comes from a good, wholesome place.  The feeling I imagine went into the making of this movie is the kind of feeling I want out in the world.

Up Next: The Beguiled (2017), Breaking Away (1979), Images (1972)

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