A blunt and honest look at cancer, 50/50 plays its frankness to two extremes. The first is in the serious and hopeless nature of many people who have cancer, the film dramatizing this situation in the life of its protagonist. The second is in the brash and bold humor that the film sprinkles throughout to give the film some levity in an otherwise bleak and cold affair.
What makes the situation work on both extremes is that Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levit) discovers he has cancer in his youth. While on the one hand, it makes the event much more tragic, it gives the film an in for having the buddy from high-school Kyle (Seth Rogen) capitalize on the event as a way to get chicks and attempt to cheer up the growing cynicism that it eating away at Adam faster than the cancer.
The relationship works well because both the actors have an established frankness that makes them work well as two complementary elements. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sincerity is a more emotional, yet seriously detached disillusionment while Seth Rogen’s frankness is more in embracing a here and now view of seizing life in the short term before it all slips away.
While the relationship works, the storytelling suffers from making situations that are too heightened and forced for the films own good. One of the worst moments of the film is when Kyle confronts Adam about Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend. It’s an important plot point, but the execution is too brash, too in your face and lapses the great interplay between Levitt and Rogen to give the reigns over to Rogen.
This is not the say that the film only works when the two are at play, but that it consistently falls flat when either character is simply given reign to vent without being challenged or acted upon by another character. It’s only when the characters challenge each other and grow that the film truly connects and works on more than just a basic level.
Therefore, when Adam goes to get counseling from Katherine (Anna Kendrick), it works as a way to get more into what the Adam character is going through outside of Kyle’s crass presence because Katherine challenges him to get over this illusion that he’s just fine or that he can somehow beat cancer by ignoring it. But he, in turn, challenges her by the book approach to their sessions.
While the film does a good job at blending the funny with the serious, it does a far better job at being funny. The two tones get around equal screen time, but the funny moments are a lot better than the honest ones, especially towards the end where the film begins to try to tug at the audience’s heart strings.
The tone and direction of 50/50 is to be lauded even if it doesn’t always work. The performers and well-defined characters help elevate the material, but the spats of character indulgence and a couple of moments that try too hard to elicit emotion keep the film from reaching its true potential. It’s still a smart, potent mix that works better as a comedy or a drama than the average Hollywood film.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing