He wakes up early. He walks down the stairs gingerly. He feeds his dog, perhaps for the last time. He gets dressed. He watches as his best friend pulls into the driveway. He gets in the car, no conversation to be had on the ride to the hospital.
This person is Adam. He’s recently been diagnosed with spinal cancer, which the doctors say has a fatality rate of 50 percent. The chance Jonathan Levine’s bittersweet dramatic comedy 50/50 is one of the best films of the year? 100 percent.
Everyone is aware of cancer. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been affected by the disease. In 2001, my uncle died of cancer. My memories of the events are vague, except for my fathers’ reaction when he picked me up for the weekend. It was one of the few times I’ve seen him in cry. I responded with tears of my own.
In 50/50, though, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a writer for public radio in dreary Seattle, attempts to deal with cancer in another way: optimism. Shocked that he’s likely to die at the age of 27 (even though he doesn’t drink or smoke and recycles), he still tries to not let the disease bring him down in the possible final months of his life.
Thankfully, he’s not alone in his struggle. Kyle (Seth Rogen), his best friend, sticks by his side every step of the way. Then we have Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard), who from the get go is wrong for Adam and is clearly disinterested in their middling relationship.
We get a great performance from Anna Kendrick (who’s best known for Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air) playing Adam’s psychiatrist. Katherine is new at her profession, but a bond between the two eventually develops. Finally, we have the overbearing, yet well-intentioned mother (Angelica Huston). She has a husband who can’t talk to her (he has Alzheimer’s) and a son who won’t. Her concern is understandable.
50/50 is full of crisp writing, a rarity in 21st Century cinema. Dramatic events ensue, but not without a fair share of equally witty and sadistic comedy. But above all the movie finds its strength in Gordon-Levitt’s compelling and moving performance as a young adult beginning to figure out the value of life.
Will Reiser’s script doesn’t come without flaws, though. The opening 30 minutes are remarkably unfocused and grating. All the characters, at least initially, feel forced and quite frankly not all that interesting. And the film contains too many musical montages, which feel tacked on for no reason.
But resembling life itself, 50/50 works through its shortcomings. After those first 30 minutes, I was in awe of how the script effortlessly flowed from the scatological to the heartbreaking. We come to care for Adam, his friends and his family. It’s a cruel experience that a person so young may have their life taken away so fast.
50/50 embarks on an emotional journey through family ties, cancer and moral complexities. It’s a roller coaster ride full of love, disappointment and compassion. Most of all, Levine’s honest portrait of man battling the specter of his own death is genuine, a quality often absent in cinema these days.