October 6, 2011

Cancer Is Funny!

Except it's not, and if you think it is then you probably have some serious social skills that need to be addressed now! Films dealing with cancer are rarely ever seen as a comedy, because a topic such as cancer is so humorless. Films that deal with this subject go for the heartstrings with all guns blazing, hoping to pull at least one tear out of you. Many fall into ruin by being too sentimental and inspirational, and end up feeling like a Lifetime movie. Others over come the obstacles and become pointed looks at humanity, love, and some such. But these movies are never funny. There has never been a cancer comedy that treated cancer like a real, scary thing, that is until 50/50 rolled around. Touted as Terms of Endearment for the Apatow crowd, 50/50 looks like a traditional stoner comedy that just happens to deal with someone getting cancer. But it's not. It's not even close to that. 50/50 is one of the best portrayals of coping with cancer that I've ever seen, with a healthy amount of genuine humor and heart. This is one you shouldn't miss.

(Sear)iously good!

Adam is what you'd call a stand-up guy. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, is polite, respectful, and abides by the rules. He works for a public radio station, not because of lack of options, but because he really likes the work, and dreams of the days when people had only the radio to be entertained. He's a relatively healthy relationship with an attractive artist, Rachael, and is best friends with Kyle, a co-worker at the station. And then Adam finds out that he has cancer, and very rare, very scary type of cancer at that. Thus begins the stages of coping, as Adam does his best to take matters into his own hands and makes sure the cancer doesn't bring him down. But, the toll of chemo, strained relationships, helplessness, and the possibility of his own, impending death start to weigh down on Adam. He's doing everything he can to beat this thing, but it looks like it's beating him right back.

Sound like a comedy to you? Didn't think so. And it's not. Not really. 50/50 is based off of the experiences of Will Reiser, who wrote the screenplay, and went through largely the same thing. The story pulses with his credibility, and the film feels all the more genuine because of it. Don't get me wrong, there are some really funny moments, but they are heavily outnumbered by the top notch dramatic stuff.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Man, that guy! I've praised him to high heaven before, and I'm just gonna keep on doing it, cuz the man just will not mess up! He's been good in things, great in most, but I think this just might be his best performance. Gordon-Levitt has that admirable quality to take any role and give a certain jazz to make it stand out, and he is on fire here. As Adam he deftly and effortlessly hops between all the stages of grief, running the gamut from hopeful optimism, to blind fury, to mind numbing depression. And he excels at every! Single! One! He is just so fucking perfect in this movie that I can't even believe that he wasn't the casting director's first choice. Oscar consideration is more than deserved.

Seth Rogen is also in fine form as Kyle, Adam's good hearted friend. Most of the comedy in the film comes from him, and Rogen does his trademark, doofy, horndog rambling as well as he's ever done it. It's a far more layered performance than we are used to from Rogen though; there's a lot more emotion behind what he's doing. A lot of this no doubt comes from the fact that he is playing, essentially, himself, as he played, more or less, the same role when Reiser was diagnosed in real life. It's a personal role for Rogen, and it shows. You can tell what he's doing means a lot to him, and he doesn't want to mess up.

Is the couch comfortable enough?

Anna Kendrick does excellent work as Adam's inexperienced therapist, Angelica Huston is superb as Adam's overbearing, but loving mother, and Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer do fine jobs as two cancer patients who Adam befriends.

If there's anyone to harp on, it's Bryce Dallas Howard as Rachael, but whatever short comings she displays are more a product of an underwritten character than her abilities as an actress. Rachael just acts like a stuck up bitch for most of the movie, and you get the sense that there was some resentment on Reiser's part when he wrote the character. Howard doesn't do a bad job. Not at all. She's just not given as much to work with, so she the first one to be forgotten.

An all around excellent job from everyone here, but Gordon-Levitt is on a whole 'nother level from them. Let's hope that people respond as favorably to this performance as I have to rest of his body of work, because it's probably the best thing he's ever done, and I know he can do better!

Jonathan Levine of The Wackness takes the reins here, and does a nice job of balancing the humor with the drama. Like I said before, 50/50 is much more of a drama then it is a comedy, but what comedy there is is really good. Whenever Gordon-Levitt and Rogen are bantering, it's hilarious, and Baker Hall is hoot in every scene he's in. But, I wasn't laughing uproariously through out the thing. I don't know why. Maybe Rogen toned it down due to the personal nature of the film. Maybe some facet of my subconscious stopped me from laughing due to the serious nature of the premise. Maybe I'm getting tired of Rogen's brand of humor. Either way, I found the serious aspects of the film to be far more compelling and moving than the funny ones.

Cuz, let's be real. Cancer isn't funny! 50/50 does the right thing in finding the humor in the situation rather than create humor by making fun of the situation. Being billed as a stoner comedy, it could easily fallen into that trap, but it didn't. Instead, it kept a level head and treated the cancer like it should be treated, as a scary, life threatening thing. There are some really great dramatic moments throughout the film, especially near the end, when Adam's situation looks really dire. And it's good, meaningful, moving drama. There's no attempt to conjure up inspiration or any sort of lame message. The film just sets outs to portray real people, dealing with a real problem, and it nails it. Absolutely nails it! Even things that could have been played just for comedy or been taken in a cliched direction, like Adam's budding relationship with his therapist, are handled thoughtfully and realistically. Even Adam's dynamic with his overbearing mother, something that could have sunk the whole movie, plays out in ways you wouldn't expect.

Man, I don't really know what to say. This movie is great. I really did not expect to respond this favorably to it. I went in, expecting a funny film with nice dramatic touches, but what I got was the opposite, a very well done dramatic film with welcome comedic touches. Bolstered by superb performances from the supporting cast, a "better than 98% of everything else out there right now" performance from JoGo, and a no bullshit approach to the cancer thing that is a direct product of Reiser and Rogen's attachment to the story, and 50/50 is not only a great comedy, but a great movie in general. One of the year's best, bar none!



  1. Mixing humor and painful subject matter is, naturally, very difficult. The beauty of this movie is that it does so with ease, especially with such good actors in these roles as well. Good review.

  2. I know it's been a while but glad to stumble back to the hole. Great review, clear and detailed as always. Of course your title caught my attention and while I can't comment directly (I have not seen this film yet) I can expand on your thoughts about the Apatow brand of filmmaking. He has definitely embraced a style of humor that continues to change, improve in some ways and branch out in others for a more complex experience. I think he's able to speak to his core audience who are looking for his twisted realism, the painfully funny, the often disgustingly funny, while also offering something to audiences more interested in believable characters and a world that is closer to their own. This intersection is what I find increasingly rewarding from anything with the 'apatow' brand, even those he's attached to as a producer (like Bridesmaids, which I just watched). Here, the subject is indeed pretty off-putting but I can see your points and how the film is able to connect us with the characters rather than just the illness as so many films do with varying levels of success. Did you see My Life Without Me or My Life - I mean not comedies by any stretch, but their handling of life/death and the now was real close to sentimental, overly in the 'heartstring' arena and consequently not a film average audiences - let alone an Apatow audience - is going to sign on to. Given your feelings about Gordon-Levitt, I'd like to hear your thoughts on Hesher (I just reviewed it at Above the Line, btw). I think he's got a lot to say and hopefully we'll see him moving more and more into demanding roles where he gets to show us his range, his ability to do say a Gosling role (Blue Valentine) or front a film like Inception (but not! inception, if you know what I mean) in that leading man way. People forget how easily Bruce Willis, Swarzenegger, Penn, and even Keaton did it so effortlessly. You know how someone can just fill the screen and it works? It's sort of like Seth Rogen is good at what he does but I don't think he has the chops to front a film. Just sayin, in like my opinion man. Anyway, that's all off track. Wanted to check back in. Cheers->

  3. @Dan: Well said good sir!

    @rorydean: Good to hear from you! I agree with you on Apatow, and that's why I really like his brand of comedy. Everyone in his movies feel like real people, and the humor is very realistic, and not just sight gags and slapstick. I regret to inform you that I haven't seen Hesher yet, but I really want to! And I think this movie was a "Gosling" role, as you put it, for JoGo. It's certainly among his heaviest roles (and he's had a lot of those), despite the comedic aspects.