Cancer is no laughing matter, but people sometimes use humor to deal with the disease. Case in point: cancer survivor Will Reiser, whose wonderful, semi-autobiographical screenplay for 50/50 treats a grim subject with a light touch that, along with tremendous performances, makes the film one of the most likeable of the year.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a physically fit guy in his mid-20s who goes to the doctor because of back pain, and leaves diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. His response to the news is an ever-changing mix of emotions — kind of like the five stages of grief, although not in any particular order. His support system reacts in surprising ways, with best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) trying to lighten the mood by comparing Adam's 50-percent survival odds to a poker game; girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) saying she will stay by his side even as doubt fills her eyes; and his mother (Anjelica Huston) immediately planning to move in.
Gordon-Levitt is back in his usual territory as the good-natured young man who's easy to root for. (Check out Hesher if you want to see him work against type.) The actor succeeds in conveying the seriousness of his character's plight while still using his comedic chops throughout, as in Adam's emotionally challenging yet tensely funny therapy sessions with a neurotic grad student (Anna Kendrick). When grim scenes of chemotherapy come to the forefront, so does the witty banter between Gordon-Levitt and his fellow patients (among them, a spunky Phillip Baker Hall) and comic relief from Rogen.
Much of 50/50's success can be attributed to screenwriter Reiser's ability to adapt his own experiences for the screen. Reiser was diagnosed six years ago (he's now in remission), and wrote the script with pseudo-autobiographical aspects included, utilizing real-life buddy Rogen's humor to ward off depression (his own and the audience's). For instance, take the potentially dismal moment of Adam shaving his head in acceptance of the ravages of chemo. With razor in hand, Rogen stops and asks which part of the body his friend uses the thing for? Suddenly, there's a playful exchange between two friends who know how to avoid an elephant in the room.
That isn't to say there aren't any solemn moments; there are. But chances are, you'll find everyone likeable. Even Rachael — who becomes emotionally unavailable as things start looking grim — proves worthy of pity.
Anjelica Huston's presence is also strongly felt, even though she gets very little screen time. Playing the wife of a man with Alzheimer's and the mother of a son with cancer, she gives an honest, powerfully emotional performance. But most important to the success of 50/50 is Gordon-Levitt. Negotiating intense mood swings with ease and still getting laughs, he's the center of a natural, cohesive cast.
50/50 manages to be an uplifting experience despite the looming presence of death in the background. That's no small feat, which is why 50/50 is one of the best movies of the year.