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50/50 (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think something as serious as cancer could be funny? Well, if you thought no, you should immediately rush out to see 50/50, the heartwarming, side-splitting tear-jerker that manages to snap a picture of the pain and anguish one goes through while they are being treated for the illness and the power of friendship that pulls someone through any tough situation they are facing. This film, which is directed by Jonathan Levine and penned by Will Reiser, strikes a perfect balance of hearty belly laughs and sniffling tears that it becomes a downright marvel in itself. Leave it to stoner comedian Seth Rogen to gravitate to a picture that makes the claim that male camaraderie is all a guy needs to pull him through a situation, any situation, that will change their life, make them embrace adulthood, or accept responsibility. It also helps that rising star Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Adam, the poor guy with the dreaded illness with a tragic vulnerability, a guy who all we want to do is reach through the screen and give him a big bear hug.

50/50 is based on a true story. The film follows Adam (Played by Levitt) who works at a radio station with his pot smoking best buddy Kyle (Played by Rogen). Adam is a nice guy, one who shacks up alongside his gorgeous girlfriend Rachel (Played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who often times walks all over him. She consistently wants to be the center of attention, overshadowing Adam at every turn. Adam has recently been feeling an aching in his lower back. He takes a trip to the doctor and learns he has a rare type of cancer, one that demands he undergo chemotherapy to treat it. As the treatment pushes forward, Adam meets two saccharine older men also stricken with cancer, is cheated on by his girlfriend, gets a ridiculous retired racing hound names Skeletor, gets medicinal marijuana, and meets a perky but amateur medical student Katherine (Played by Anna Kendrick) who guides him in the psychological aspect of what is happening to him. As Adam begins to fall apart, he begins trying to do things he doesn’t usually partake in. As his illness gets worse, Adam learns that he has a 50/50 chance of survival, a fact that pushes the defeated Adam to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Drastically shifting from hilarity to heartrending, 50/50 avoids being a clichéd drama, one that strums the heartstrings that sing the loudest or a tasteless comedy, one that turns something like cancer into a sick joke. Focusing on the swirling emotions that no doubt accompany something like this, this film is sincerely human. A film that left me thinking about how I would emotionally cope with learning I had cancer. You never feel like a voyeur while watching 50/50, never exploiting and always inviting you in to the scene. There is a part of the film that shows us Adam and Kyle smoking weed with Alan (Played by Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Played by Matt Frewer), the two older gents struck with cancer. They joke, laugh, and are warmed by Mitch’s wife, who embraces Mitch in a loving hug, showing she is sticking by her companion through sickness and in health. It’s the moments like this that show 50/50 is never on autopilot in the emotions department. The film also becomes piercing and cold, especially when Rachel’s true colors emerge. There are moments that are pathetic, especially a scene in which Adam lays around in a pot coma, wallowing in the calamity and despair that has crept up on him.

Rogen, who should be up for an Oscar for his supporting role as Kyle, steals the entire film, the foul mouthed best friend who always annoys yet cracks the straight-laced shell of Adam with a crooked grin. He always knows the right things to say, even if Adam refuses to admit it’s humorous. After Adam dumps Rachel, Kyle takes him out and encourages him to exploit his situation in order to pick up chicks. The results are hysterical. Rogen has a way with ad-libbing, making any given scene feel natural, creeping by the staged. He has become an actor who radiates natural allure, always coming across unadulterated and not simply a character he is portraying. Kyle is his crowning achievement in his sprawling body of work. Howard and Kendrick also bring human performances, one representing the aloofness of human nature (Howard) and one embodying the compassion (Kendrick).

The message is clear in 50/50: Life is unpredictable. We shouldn’t be afraid to take risks because we never know when it can be taken away. Adam lives a conservative, buttoned up life (He doesn’t drink or drive a car), one that lacks thrills. Kyle lives as if everyday is his last, wisecracking and giggling his way through any situation, even as he is caught in the middle of an argument between Rachel and Adam. Yet it’s his friendship, his willingness to stand by his friend that moved me while watching 50/50. This is a film that even if you think you won’t have your world shaken up, it will get you at some point. Adam’s nervous breakdown was the point that really hogtied me emotionally. 50/50 believes in the power of love, a force that is complicated and has strange ways of showing up and guiding us. Every door closed is another door open. I wish every film could fill me with optimism and dazzle me with the splendor of life like 50/50 did. It also proves that laughter is indeed the best medicine.

Grade: A-