50/50 discovers humor in cancer struggle

Film juxtaposes humor and drama, focuses on character's growth in face of tragedy

Josh Smith Sep 26, 2011

50/50 is based on writer Will Reiser’s own experience in dealing with cancer and the struggles that come with it, from both a comedic and a serious standpoint. The appeal of this movie comes from how effectively humor and drama are blended to make a story that is both heart-wrenching and heartwarming.

The film starts by showing the everyday life of 27-year-old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), including his relationships with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas-Howard) and his best friend and Seattle radio station coworker Kyle (Seth Rogen). After a visit to the doctor’s office, Adam finds out that he has spinal cancer, and that there is a 50 percent survival rate for this particular type of cancer. Adam proceeds to tell his mother (Anjelica Huston) and father (Serge Houde). He also starts to see a therapist, the young and inexperienced Katie (Anna Kendrick).

Gordon-Levitt portrays Adam in an entertaining way, while also being able to demonstrate the gravity of his situation. At first it may seem as if Gordon-Levitt is recycling his character from 500 Days of Summer; however, Adam is a far more independent character with a greater range of emotions. Rogen is often found at the funniest moments of the film, employing an unexpected amount of crass humor for a movie dealing with cancer. He continues his tradition of playing vulgar and often stoned characters in 50/50, yet it works perfectly with the style of the film and the other characters. Adam and Kyle’s antics provide many laughs, and their friendship feels believable for the most part. Kendrick excellently performs the role of Katie, Adam’s therapist. Her attempts to come off as professional despite being fairly inexperienced create both humor in the scene and anxieties in Adam’s character.

What is most noticeable about 50/50 is how expertly executed the jarring transitions between moods are. The contrast between hilarious and poignant is so harsh and rapid that it has a unique effect on the audience. At one moment Adam interrogates Kyle on the previous usage of the electric razor he is about to shave his head with, and the next moment the viewer can sense the extreme isolation that Adam suffers from dealing with cancer and an increasingly distant girlfriend. It is this style that makes the film so compelling, never letting the audience settle on one emotion.

One thing that the film does not try to do is inspire you to “go out and live life to the fullest.” It touches on Adam’s regrets, but thankfully never takes the next step of turning into The Bucket List. It deals with people handling the adversities that life presents. The focus stays on each character’s growth and the growth of their relationships with each other. As Adam learns more about the people in his life, his relationships with them change and he learns more about himself. It is the excellent delivery of both pain and comedy, as well as the emotional impact of the story, that makes this one of the better films of the year.