Cancer and comedy. Two words that you don’t hear together very often. And rightly so. It’s a serious illness that affects millions of people around the world and should not be treated lightly at the expense of cheap comedy. Step In 50/50 which takes the issue of cancer and finds humour in the situations which can occur around it without ever feeling like it’s poking fun or not taking it seriously.
The story follows Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a regular guy who one day finds put he’s got a tumour on his spine. With the help, or sometimes lack thereof, of his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), his counselor Katherine (Anna Kendrick) and his mother (Anjelica Huston), Adam tries to deal with his situation in any way he can.
This was a risky project that could have easily ended up being crass, insensitive and exploitative (the original title I’m With Cancer gave off a suspicious vibe). But the film walks the fine line with just about perfect precision, dealing head on with the illness and never shying away from the harsh realities of how that would affect someone’s life but still unearthing every bit of genuine humour it can. It can go from deadly serious one minute as Will (understandably) has trouble dealing with his illness and the next it can have you laughing hard at a ridiculous situation or some witty, sometimes surprisingly vulgar banter exchanged between Levitt and Rogen.
Speaking of which, both actors are great in their respective roles, with Levitt bringing the relatable everyman quality the role calls for and is entirely convincing as a man going through a horrible ordeal. Rogen is doing something a bit outside of his comfort zone while at the same time still bringing us the schtick that’s made him a star. The likes of Kendrick and Huston are also on solid form, each pulling off very difficult roles, and there’s small joys to be found in little appearances by actors such as Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer (who some may remember as Max Headroom) and Bryce Dallas Howard as Adam’s conflicted girlfriend.
The journey the character goes on is perhaps inevitable – the film can only really end in either of two ways – but the way it gets there and the routes it chooses to take feels entirely believable and not just like its treading old ground. Even the compulsory love interest side plot doesn’t feel tired or contrived but fits in with the story very naturally. It really does take you on an effective and affecting emotional journey, allowing us to travel the ups and downs alongside Adam in a wholly realistic fashion.
The fact that the script is written by Reiser who himself went through a very similar situation as the main character gives the film real dramatic weight and a ring of authenticity. But that also carries through to the writing itself which is top notch, moving effortlessly back and forth between drama and comedy – a perfect example of how to pull that off. What could have been a severely misjudged attempt at treading fresh comedy ground ends up being a genuinely touching, funny and often powerful tale that feels as personal as it does universal.
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