Despite their many differences, the new film “50/50” reminded me of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s previous movie, “(500) Days of Summer.” A gentleness and innocence pervades both of these two films. Both films focus on a young man (played by Gordon-Levitt) facing a major crisis in his life and coming to grips with it. While “Summer” found Gordon-Levitt stressing about his relationship with his girlfriend, “50/50” finds him worrying about something far more serious: cancer.
As the story begins, Adam (Gordon-Levitt) spends his days working for a public radio station. Adam’s best friend is the immature but likeable Kyle (Seth Rogen) and he’s dating a beautiful girl named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). Everything is going well for the young idealist until he visits his doctor and complains about the back pain and the night sweats that he’s been experiencing.
The routine visit becomes something more when the doctor tells Adam that he has cancer. The scene where Adam is informed of the illness shows the way Adam faces his diagnosis. The world around him becomes blurry and he can barely hear the doctor talking to him anymore. He shouldn’t have cancer, he thinks. He’s too young.
His chances of survival, as the title suggests, are 50/50.
From then on, the film is driven by his crew of supporting characters. There is a gentleness in the way the story handles them and their personal flaws. Rachael, for instance, is presented as a fully-dimensional character despite the predictable mistakes that she makes as the girlfriend of a cancer patient.
The relationship between the couple, which would have been managed incorrectly in a lesser film, is well-done here. After the diagnosis, Adam offers Rachael a way out of the relationship. Dating someone with cancer wasn’t part of the bargain, he figures, so he tells her that there would be no hard feelings if she walked away. She doesn’t and the honorable, though disappointing, actions that she takes to cheer him up show her affection for him. Down the line, she makes mistakes (including not driving him to cancer treatments) but her character never feels like the villain. She’s a normal woman who makes some terrible decisions. Her humanity shines through in a scene near the story’s end where the couple converse with each other on his front porch.
Casting is particularly important in a story like this. With characters in the foreground, director Jonathan Levine relies on a group of young, solid actors to bring the story to life. Gordon-Levitt is well suited for the main role but the supporting cast is nearly impeccable as well. Anna Kendrick, as Adam’s self-conscious therapist, and Rogen, who comes across as pompous in some of his other films, create identifiable and insecure characters who are just trying to help Adam through his disease. Anjelica Huston, who plays Adam’s mother, also does well in her small but unforgettable role as Adam’s mother.
“50/50” is written by Will Reiser, who battled cancer himself. The film is inspired by his own story. Because of Reiser’s own experiences, the story feels honest showing us Adam through the stages of his disease. From the way that Adam’s fellow cancer patients introduce themselves (with their first name and then the type of cancer that they have) to the way that Adam judges his own looks after shaving his head (“I look like Voldermort”), “50/50” rings true.
For audiences looking for a great movie with strong characters, there’s nothing risky about betting on “50/50.”