I just saw 50/50. Thar be spoilers ahead.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen are one of the best buddy teams in recent memory, and should be put in charge of all dramedies henceforth. Rogen wasn’t too different from his normal character, but that’s actually the point – he is playing himself, really. But it worked much more here than it typically does, opposite Gordon-Levitt’s everyman. Rogen is the kind of friend you’d want in this situation – not only will he tell you that everything is going to be fine – which, as Gordon-Levitt laments, makes it worse overall – but he’ll force you to be positive by looking at it from an insane angle that nobody in their right mind would have thought (“You have cancer? Use it to get chicks.”), but still is deeply concerned for your well being, doing everything he can (reading a dealing with cancer book on the crapper, for instance) to help.
Rogen’s character and performance works and works well, but the highlight performances come from Gordon-Levitt and (relative) newcomer Anna Kendrick. Gordon-Levitt portrays very well the passage of a man through jaded cynicism about his diagnosis, to slight optimism after Rogen helped him lighten up and after meeting fellow cancer patients, and then back to fear and depression after the death of a fellow patient and complications. All the while, Kendrick’s Katherine McKay (yes, McKay) – as his 24-year-old therapist (he is her third patient and she is working toward a doctorate degree) helps to coach him through it in her own style. Kendrick does an excellent job exuding that rookie doctor feel; though she means well and has good bedside manner, most of her treatment is spouting lessons learned in med school – “oh it’s normal for people in your position, we call it whatever” – and less actually treating Adam. In turn, Adam is often annoyed at their sessions and a bit put off by her compulsion to list his conditions. Their dynamic is a great one and the two have remarkable chemistry. Their recurring gag of awkward touches works as both the dramatic and comedic element, and her offer to drive him home and the resulting scene is filled with wonderful awkward moments and humor. I would even venture to say that they may – just may – work better than Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel.
The film gets many things right emotionally. While I do not have cancer and never have, I’ve been sat in front of many doctors in my time awaiting diagnoses, prognoses, and procedure results. Everything that Adam goes through is poignantly accurate. The way that everything seems to fade when you hear the word (“cancer” in the film, “diabetes” for me) you don’t want to hear. The way that things only seem worse with everybody telling you it’s going to be okay, because you quite clearly AREN’T okay. The odd, steely calm that comes over you for a long time. The sudden freak out when the anesthesiologist shows up and you’re about to be put under. Gordon-Levitt does an excellent job selling these moments, and they are painfully real – likely because the screenwriter, having gone through it himself, understands so well what it’s like.
The film has a number of moments of self-awareness, and these are wonderful as well. Adam, not long after his diagnosis, gives Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rachel (his scumbag girlfriend) “an out”, and tells her he does not mind and understands if she has to leave. She doesn’t – yet she quickly finds, as almost every single movie girl who has to care for their ill significant other does, that caring for Adam is just too much. So, predictably, she cheats on him (Rogen catches her in the act and has one of the most uproarious scenes in the film as a result), Adam breaks up with her, and that’s that, allowing the film’s much advertised “use cancer to get chicks” routine to take place. Later, however, Rachel shows back and attempts to make amends. Adam appears to go for it, and the film’s score begins to swell, and we’re all thinking “crap, I like the therapist”, and then Adam pulls out of the kiss and tells her to get off his porch. The film is aware of the traditional methods that illness films use to create tension, and it plays with them so very well. These moments are all over the film and they are fantastic.
What really struck me, however, was the Mood Whiplash. Though this film is advertised quite heavily as a comedy, it is definitely more of a “dramedy” (which, incidentally, is one of my most hated words – dramatic comedy works better, no need for a random term). What is rare, however, is that it is rarely both of those things at the same time. There will be long sequences of comedy, punctuated by a jarring shift to poignancy, and vice versa. The best example is Adam’s first chemotherapy session. He walks solemnly down the hospital halls, after Rachel refused to accompany him through the four hour session, seeing all variety of cancer patients walking through, including a shambling elderly woman with the trademark bandanna covering her head and coughing loudly. A few shots of the chemo system later, and Adam is sitting in a chair next to two older gentlemen. The music is low, sad, and the whole scene has a very somber feel. One of the men offers him a macaroon from a tray of cookies. Adam declines, to which the man replies: “they’re filled with weed.” Adam proceeds to eat the cookies and laugh and get high with the two men. As he leaves, he is quite clearly high, with the hospital colors incredibly bright, a ridiculously inflated smile on his face. He passes a man going in for surgery and gives him a comically jovial thumbs up and air fist bump. He passes a cadaver on a stretcher, a black cloth on top of it, and after it passes fails to stifle a laugh. The scene is ridiculous and highly amusing. Quick cut to Adam waking up at night, and rushing to the bathroom to vomit.
In that sequence, we go from sad and somber, feeling Adam’s pain, to amused and happy during the marijuana-fueled voyage from the hospital, back to the cold harsh reality of the suffering Adam will endure during chemo. Mood Whiplash indeed. This sort of feeling infuses the entire film, and creates a highly comical yet poignant film, with the other notable example being an incredibly moving montage of the major characters as Adam enters the climactic surgery, punctuated by a great sequence with Katherine in the waiting room being asked questions by Rogen and Adam’s mother about what Adam told her about them (Rogen especially is hilarious – “Did he tell you I’m a dick? Because I’m not.”)
Overall, 50/50 is a very real portrait of a man going through cancer that Hollywood seldom provides. Seth Rogen gives us the friend we all need during such a time, Anna Kendrick has great chemistry with Gordon-Levitt, and Jonathan Levine manages to juggle comedy and drama in an incredibly natural way, creating a poignant film that understands how people deal with such a complex, frightening subject – with laughter and love. Highly recommended.
* * * *