"50/50? That's not so bad! If you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds!"
Eschewing its more confrontational working title, I’m With Cancer for something ultimately more considered and representative of the tonal shifts of the finished product, Jonathan Levine’s third feature, following All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) and The Wackness (2008), proves much more successful than comedy-behemoth Judd Apatow’s previous attempt at tackling similar themes in 2009’s Funny People, largely as a result of a sensitive and emotionally astute screenplay and a cast of characters for the most part presented sympathetically and wholly realised, both individually and in their respective relationships. In terms of style, it perhaps has more in common with the work of director David Gordon Green, marrying the visual sensibility of earlier works such as All the Real Girls (2003) with a superficial stoner-comedy vibe much more deftly than said filmmaker did with Pineapple Express (2008), with which 50/50 shares sequences similarly styled.
Written, semi-autobiographically by Seth Rogen's best friend Will Reiser, who much like protagonist Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) found himself diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer ("the more syllables it has, the worse it is"), his screenplay generally succeeds in its tonal balancing act, avoiding glibness and for the most part sentimentality, whilst remaining both moving and often very funny. Its charm lies as much in the performances as in the keenly observed script, with Rogen as Adam's best friend Kyle, and Anna Kendrick as his inexperienced counsellor delivering their best work yet.
As much concerned with the way those around Adam deal with his news as Adam's own experience, Reiser finds much humour in the awkward or misguided attempts of his friends, colleagues and family to be empathetic, from Kyle taking him to bars to get him laid, suggesting he use his cancer to his advantage ("No one wants to fuck me, I look like Voldemort!"), to his anxious but well-meaning mother (a brilliant Anjelica Huston), already caring for her husband's Alzheimers and feeling increasingly helpless in not being able to do the same for her son. Gordon-Levitt excels as the mellow, risk-averse Adam (“It just doesn’t make sense, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I recycle”), the idea of his having to care for and comfort his friends and family in his own hour of need is one well-executed, carried into his workplace where colleagues project their own fears and misunderstandings of his disease in a brilliantly awkward sequence.
If certain elements feel somewhat contrived towards injecting drama in the first half, most notably his break-up with struggling girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), initially promising to look after him but soon conveniently caught cheating, the film’s overall arc remains affecting, and Levine is careful to temper the broader comedic aspects (overplayed in the marketing campaign) with moments showing the harsher realities of Adam’s illness, such as a jump cut to him being violently sick in the middle of the night from a scene of him strolling stoned through hospital corridors after eating weed cakes with the older patients (Phillip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer) with whom he shares a chemo session.
The burgeoning relationship between Adam and his counsellor Katherine could also be viewed as a convenient narrative cipher, and it’s in the scenes between the pair that the film most threatens to tip towards the sentimental. It’s testament to both performances however, that this is for the most part avoided, the flirtatious blurring of doctor/patient boundaries remaining both sweet and awkward.
Levine’s laid back direction has some great touches too, at its best when allowing the actors the space to work, such as a scene where Kyle confronts Rachael with evidence of her cheating, or Adam’s pre-operation break down. He lets the inherent emotion of the denouement play out without pushing too hard, leaving it genuinely affecting as a result, and if he can’t quite resist overplaying a certain clichéd stoner-chic style occasionally, as when Adam and Kyle destroy one of Rachel’s paintings in the back yard, in split-screen and slo-mo, Roy Orbison ‘Crying’ on the soundtrack, these moments are rare enough not to prove overly grating.
Whilst unlikely to feature on any end-of-year best lists, 50/50 remains smart, moving and very hard not to like, especially given the strength of the performances. It’s clearly a personal project which benefits enormously from its first hand insights, and despite the occasional narrative contrivance, the honesty of its head-on confrontation with Adam’s illness ensures it feels consistently truthful in its emotional journey.
50/50 – 2011 – USA – 100 mins – Dir : Jonathan Levine
50/50 plays at the London Film Festival on 13th, 14th & 15th October and goes on general release on November 25th.
LFF tickets are available here.