Nominated for two recent Golden Globe awards (“Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy”, and “Best Actor: Musical or Comedy”), 50/50 is the story of a young man who learns he has a rare form of cancer and the often painful, but just as often quirky, life changes he navigates during the process. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen.
I can only imagine the pitch meeting for this film where the creators try to sell the concept of making a cancer comedy. “It’s about this young guy who discovers he has a rare form of spinal cancer. But it’s gonna be funny. No, really.” It’s the kind of setup that can only spectacularly crash and burn, or perhaps, just maybe, find enough magic to be charming and poignant.
The story revolves around Adam (Gordon-Levitt) and his best friend Kyle (Rogen). Adam is twenty-something, just getting serious with his girlfriend, and overall enjoying the prime of his life. Until a nagging pain is discovered to be something far worse. Kyle is his irreverent, but devoted friend, who does his best (or rather, his usual) to keep Adam’s spirits up and his life going as close to normal as possible. But as the chemotherapy begins to wrack Adam’s body, and his girlfriend subsequently takes up with another beau, his promising young life quickly takes a turn south. Kyle, and Adam’s inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick), take turns in their own way to try to help Adam find the hope in his life-threatening situation.
The title 50/50 can be taken in lots of different directions. Not only is it his chances of survival, but it’s also an accurate split of humor versus drama in this movie. It’s how often his spirits begin to pick up versus sliding into depression, and it’s also the split of people in his life who simply stand by him versus making the process more difficult. Gordon-Levitt effortlessly plays the straight man, a rather typical good guy who is suddenly thrust into a very difficult life situation. But it’s Rogen who steals the show as his loyal, but also very opportunistic best friend. Sure, he uses his friend’s condition to pick up chicks with the sympathy card, and he certainly helps himself to some quality, medicinal weed. But he’s also fiercely devoted. More and more, we come to realize that he’s actually doing everything he can think of to make lemonade out of the situation, and most of us would be so lucky to have such a friend in a time of need.
The expert twist of 50/50 is that it never makes fun of cancer, or sickness, or loss. It tries to find the spark of life in a dark situation, and yes, even the levity in trying to navigate the process. Cancer is such a universal disease that it’s easy to relate to the idea of it happening suddenly, to even a young, healthy guy who otherwise has everything working for him; someone who might be your best friend. But it also never jokes the problems away, and there’s a wonderful balance struck of the search for joy in the midst of pain. It’s easy to focus part of your brain and take in a very well-sculpted comedy, and then a short moment later to enjoy a very touching and relatable drama with genuine warmth.
50/50 comes with a very nice video transfer, and one that highlights both the natural tone of the film as well as the extremes of lighting. Everything from stark white, medicinal rooms all the way down to barely-lit night scenes are pretty close to flawless. Detail is crisp and revealing, in everything from Adam’s head stubble to the curling smoke of medicinal conversations. Although nice cinematography and top-flight video clarity aren’t always the first things you look for in a comedy, this one delivers on both counts.
Perhaps even better is the subtly effective audio track, here presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Although the dialogue is exactly where you would expect it to be – front and center, and ready to just sit there – it’s the music that really reveals the care they took with this film. Everything from the opening jogging sequence, to the club scenes to the film’s score finds music seeping into the picture on more than just a surface level. It rounds out the sound field as much as it often does the storyline. Sound effects are also judiciously spaced, and overall the sound is crisp and expertly mixed.
Extras appear to be an afterthought here, although there is a commentary track featuring Seth Rogen, the director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser. A handful of deleted scenes (HD, 6:17) are included, most of which seem like they could have easily been squeezed into the film. “The Story of 50/50” (HD, 7:54) is the typical fare, with the main takeaway being that the film was inspired by writer Will Reiser’s own experience with cancer, and also some testimonials by the crew on how cancer has affected their respective families. “Life Inspires Art” (HD, 9:15) is a set of (very) mini-features that again deal with how the story came about. Finally, “Seek and Destroy” (HD, 2:21) shows Rogen and Gordon-Levitt doing just that in some behind-the-scenes footage of the art deconstruction scene.
The fact that 50/50 manages to blend comedy and cancer without creating a sacrilege is commendable. The fact that it manages it while being genuinely funny, heartfelt and warmly inspirational is nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Although the bad boys of comedy have left a few of their usual stamps in place, the film transcends the often predictable Rogen-Superbad trappings. This is a comedy that surprises, and its many kudos have been well earned. A very recommended film.