Screening Log #31: 50/50 (2011)

Written by Will Reiser
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, and Anjelica Huston




There are few things, if any, as difficult in the world as struggling with cancer, or watching and caring for a loved one who is fighting the ubiquitous disease themselves. Writing about cancer, and this simultaneously intensely personal and universal struggle, is one thing that approaches this level of difficulty. To create a piece of art that speaks to something that has touched everyone, that everyone will react strongly toward, that respects the infinitely unique difficulties inherent in these encounters with finitude, while still managing to not descend into overly sentimental platitudes, takes patience, skill, and a nearly sympathetic sense of care. That Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 succeeds in this improbable task alone makes it worthwhile.

50/50, penned by Will Reiser who based the screenplay on his own experience with cancer, follows Adam, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, at twenty-seven, is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. The film details Adam’s progress through his diagnosis and treatment, allowing for a relatable and realistic picture of how this illness and its treatments effect the rest of his life. Adam begins the film in a relationship with an artist, who eventually cheats on him when she can’t deal with the difficulty of his illness, and is supported by his best friend Kyle, Seth Rogen, who employs often crude humour and the pursuit of women to distract his friend from the looming spectre of his mortality. Rogen’s role is of particular interest, as he was essentially performing on screen a role he took in real life while Reiser, his friend, was ill.

The film allows light to shine through the cracks in the blackness of the subject matter and is sensitive enough not to suggest that Adam’s cancer is any more affronting because he is young; 50/50, like Adam, develops a keen relationship with the older, pot-cookied, men with whom he receives chemotherapy. Adam’s family life is complicated by a worrying mother who must also tend to his father who has Alzheimer’s, and his therapy is conducted by the plucky and inexperienced Katherine, played with her usual mix of professionalism and vulnerable naïveté by Anna Kendrick. Levine and co. foreground its soundtrack of emotive indie signifier songs a little too heavily, resulting in what feels like a well-intentioned manipulation of the viewer, but the performances are uniformly in tune with the content of the film; Gordon-Levitt’s answers the difficult proposition of playing a character going through a potentially terminally challenging time with subtlety and skill. The remainder of the characters are given moments to round out what could potentially be one-dimensional support roles and the direction is wise enough to get out of the way of its story.

There is the thread of a romance woven into the film, but it admirably refuses to make more of this thread than a gesture. To feature any more of the potential romance between Adam and Katherine than they do would elevate it above the film’s intention to tell a particular story about cancer and the struggle against it. As it stands, the film holds love beyond the frame of the story, looming in the glow of recovery, a potential reality waiting for those lucky enough to survive.


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