Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a quiet and reserved 27-year-old man who loves to jog, spend time with his girlfriend, and hang out with his raunchy friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen). Nothing could ever prepare him for the fact that his life is about to turn nearly 360 degrees. When he is diagnosed with a rare type of cancer, Adam discovers that his chances of survival equal those of a figurative coin toss, a distressing and sad change for someone once so strong and fit. While Adam is on chemotherapy, Kyle encourages him to shave his head, then uses his friend’s cancer as a catalyst to try to get both of them laid. While going through the stages of chemotherapy and general life struggles, Adam also begins developing a bond with his inexperienced therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick).
The supporting cast of 50/50 ranges from strong to under-used. Rogen is as good here as he has ever been, and it is nice to see the great character actor Philip Baker Hall, who plays an older cancer patient. Kendrick is okay, but gives essentially the same performance as she does in Up in the Air, as an amateur, somewhat bumbling character. Nevertheless, she is given much more of an emotional arc in this picture, and is therefore adequate. Anjelica Huston is decent as Adam’s worrisome, overbearing mother, while the only shortchanged actress is Bryce Dallas Howard. In a one-note, difficult-to-sympathize-with performance, she plays Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael, who pretty much treats her sick boyfriend despicably. More emphasis on humanity would perhaps have made her as realistic as the other characters are; however, she ends up being a villainous stereotype whom the audience is meant to scoff at.
As good as most of the supporting cast is, Levitt is the real revelation here. He manages to handle the quiet scenes perfectly, while still bringing heart-wrenching emotion when necessary. This is such a wonderfully restrained performance, that any time scenes get loud and emotional, they stand out and are all the more sad and painful.
Unlike many films about the tragedy of cancer, 50/50 is never manipulative. Rather than sadness coming from a big emotional crying scene, the audience is guaranteed to simply feel bad for the protagonist by the situation playing out. The movie is deeply affecting on a human and realistic level. It never handles its material in an offensive way—in fact, it deals with the issue on hand with much caution—yet does not chicken out either. Mostly, this is due to Will Reiser’s top-shelf writing, which merges humor and misfortune perfectly into a well-blended, emotionally satisfying film.
Jonathan Levine’s direction is often clever, and is especially noticeable during the scene where Adam first learns that he has the dreaded disease. The doctor’s voice suddenly sounds far away, and the camera focuses only on the victim’s face. This moment is one of several intense moments throughout the film, that affects the viewer like a blow to the chest. Near the movie’s end, the story goes to some unexpectedly weighty and suspenseful places, places that take boldness to traverse.
50/50 is the type of emotional film that works well because it does not try too hard to assault the audience’s tear ducts. The story progresses naturally, as does Levitt’s tour-de-force performance. If by the end of the film you are not in tears, at least expect to feel some dryness in your throat.