50/50

"So you really think girls will go for me just because I have cancer?" "For the millionth time, yes!"

50/50 has the confidence to open with a honking metaphor: 27 year-old Adam, healthy and fit, living a comfortable, relatively ordinary existence in Los Angeles, is jogging down the street and comes to a red stoplight. No cars are in sight, and another runner rockets past him across the street. But the stoplight seems to have been put there for Adam. He waits for it, doing that awkward running-in-place thing that joggers do when something arrests their progress.

Is that what it feels like to be diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer at age 27 — a big blaring red light in your path? Like something has clamped down and put a hold on your entire life, suddenly and implacably? I can thankfully only imagine. Jonathan Levine’s film, from an autobiographical screenplay by Will Reiser, tries to grapple with this question — how does it feel, in the prime of your life, to be told that you have a fifty-fifty chance of surviving more than a few months? — straightforwardly and sincerely. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but I liked its directness, its willingness to focus unyieldingly on its grim subject, and the work of its excellent cast.

Did I mention it’s a comedy? The marketing pitches 50/50 as sort of a raunchy bromance with a morbid backdrop, but Reiser’s screenplay is actually more intricate than that, using some truly edgy gallows humor to heighten the terrifying absurdity of what Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is facing. When he goes in to check on a nagging pain in his lower back, the doctor comes into the room, x-ray in hand, and starts muttering incomprehensible but intimidating jargon into a tape recorder while his patient stares at him in horror. It’s funny in an uncomfortable, very specific way – I have no doubt that this is a detail imported from Reiser’s actual experience – and the ridiculous truth of the moment allows the movie to turn on a dime and become breathtakingly frightening a few seconds later. The doctor starts to explain that the x-ray reveals a malignant tumor that’s leeched onto Adam’s spine, and, well – how would you react?

50/50 is less interested in leveraging this heavy scene for conventional emotional impact than in capturing how an out-of-the-blue revelation like that might feel. Adam doesn’t break down crying. Instead, he gets up and walks to the window, and the droning voice of the doctor fades into the background. How do you process such a radical, forced readjustment of your life and your future, delivered in a single blow? The movie makes an earnest effort to answer that question for its protagonist.

Adam tells his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), and his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), and, hardest of all, his mother (Anjelica Huston). Kyle’s response struck me as the most poignant: a fast-talking, perpetually horny jokester, Kyle first gets hung up on the word “schwannoma,” then gets angry, then responds with complete certainty that Adam will be all right, though it’s not clear if he really believes it. Not sure what else to do, he goes back to his comfort zone and insists, loudly and repeatedly, that chicks dig cancer.

The film goes to some dark places in its last hour. At one point, Adam gets ready to go in for a risky, necessary surgery, and there’s a pre-op scene that’s so raw, so unflinching in facing head-on the mortal terror of that experience, that I was too stunned to even cry. It almost goes without saying that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is extraordinary here. The script doesn’t give him a lot of big, showy scenes – it’s not that kind of movie – but he doesn’t need them. He finds truth in the smaller beats of incredulity and vulnerability. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a man gazing into the abyss with as much grace as he can muster. Sometimes that isn’t very much, but that’s okay.

One problem is that 50/50 can (perhaps ironically) seem somewhat overdetermined, especially in the way it treats its supporting characters. It’s clear from the very first moment that Adam’s girlfriend is a terrible person who’s going to betray him in his hour of greatest need, though she insists otherwise, and though Adam inexplicably doesn’t see it – it’s too transparent to serve as anything other than a plot device. The subplot involving Adam’s perky, pretty, inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick) is too cute, its direction again a bit too obvious. And Anjelica Huston doesn’t get very much screen time (a fact that is, admittedly, explained away); she’s sort of a vague sketch of a worried, doting mother.

So when it leans on plot, the film is a little bit thin. The plot, though, isn’t where the action is. 50/50 is a remarkably tough-minded meditation on mortality, willing to confront the audience with harsh realities and to grapple with difficult, scary questions. It’s pitched as a comedy, and it is – there are plenty of laughs. But it’s also disquieting, and sad, and a shock to the system.

-- Eugene Novikov

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