Most movies featuring someone with a potentially fatal affliction come off as emotionally manipulative and basically try to forcefully ring the tears out of your body. In the case of 50/50 I cannot come right out and say that there are moments that I felt there was some coaxing for the waterworks to start but I will say that if they were manipulating me into getting teary eyed I didn’t mind it. Great writing and great characters can go a long way even if they have to say and do things that have the potential to leave not just the characters but also the audience emotionally drained.
50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a calm mild mannered guy that has just found out that he has cancer. The news obviously comes as a shock since he doesn’t drink or do drugs and work on a regular basis (plus he recycled) and has a hard time coming to terms with the news. His girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) has a hard time dealing with the news and his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) deals with it the best way he knows how- by making jokes and using it to get both of them laid. He begins going to a therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) who’s still basically in training and Adam is only her third patient ever. As Adam begins chemotherapy things progressively get harder to deal with as Adam’s odds of living seem to dwindle he tries to make peace with the idea of dying and trying to make things right with his mother he constantly ignores and his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
I constantly worry and obsess over every ache and pain on a daily basis and 50/50 did little to make me feel at ease. In fact in many ways Levitt’s character had many of the same personality traits and bad habits like biting the skin around his fingernails (it’s a nervous tick) that I exhibit more often than not. That made it much easier to connect with the demeanor of the character and how he would act in a situation. The bad thing is since I also worry about some of the aches and pains Adam also suffers from which led him to get checked out and eventually lead him to finding he has cancer I found myself even more paranoid. When the credits rolled I seriously considered booking an appointment for the doctor- this is a long winded way of saying I thought the move was effective in making me believe the character’s journey and the emotional depth that’s brought out throughout the film.
Given that the film offers a subject that’s familiar and covered in other movies it seems even more of a feat that I was able to watch it and still connect on a level that it felt new and fresh. Most of this can be credited to the actors for their fantastic performances and the writers for telling a personal story with great dialogue and a natural progression of the characters and situations. I saw so much of myself in Levitt’s character that it was freaky and made his emotional arc even more so because of it but I saw bits and pieces of myself in Rogen’s character as well so it was easy to root for him and see things from his point of view.
The film views Adam’s situation from several points of view and they are all realistic and understandable even if you find characters actions deplorable at times. One view is a friend that rather than mope along with Adam wants to pick him up with jokes and trying to get him laid, one as a grieving mother desperate to connect with her son, a young therapist struggling to find the right way to approach treating her patient and a girlfriend unprepared to deal with the news. Each of these characters are fleshed out and take the roles as high as they can to great effect.
As great as the film is and as emotionally satisfied I felt at the end I would have to say that I wish the film had taken a little more time in certain areas. The way each character arc is handled, while great could have explored certain things more than they actually did. In some way I feel that by not exploring them the filmmakers were making an intentional choice to make characters not respond to specific accusations due to the situation at hand and not trying to hog attention. Specifically I’m referring to a scene towards the end between Rogen and Levitt where Levitt has a bit of an emotional breakdown and says some things which are never rebutted by Rogen. Not a defining flaw so much as it was a hope on my part to hear what Rogen’s character had to say in that situation. Then again it can be argued it’s resolved when Levitt’s character finds a book Rogen had been reading- yet neither ever apologizes for their actions or reference the conflict afterward.
I believe that 50/50 works more as dramatic material and character studies than it does as a comedy. It is funny and has quite a few laugh out loud moments but I found myself hit more by the drama of certain moments where the comedy was just a welcome distraction. That mixture of comedy to drama fits the central situation as well because when your life becomes defined by the drama of a disease all you want is a little distraction to help you deal with it and work you through it and in that way 50/50 succeeds perfectly. There are quite a few emotionally effective performances especially from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a likable sidekick that make 50/50 incredibly hard not to love.