When one attributes any sort of positivity towards 50/50, I sense it’s not being geared toward screenwriter Will Reiser, director Jonathan Levine, or Seth Rogen. It’s really (mostly) geared toward Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And rightfully so – Gordon-Levitt has a very sly and understated way of going about the proceedings, making him come across as a very sympathetic and relatable character. Of course, it’s not hard to sympathize with a twenty-something-year-old who just found out he has cancer. But Gordon-Levitt is capable of expressing his hardships in a way that seems alarmingly true, even if the material he’s working with rarely exceeds that of a typical laugh track sitcom. But herein lies 50/50’s biggest fault: Gordon-Levitt transcends the material with such gusto that it only serves to highlight the unevenness of the rest of the film.
Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is the sort of guy who avoids driving as it’s the fifth leading cause of death. He avoids drinking and smoking. He waits for the cross light for the go. He recycles. Upon receiving the bad news, Adam relies on the kindness of his girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) and best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen). As his illness gets more serious and he begins his chemotherapy, the strains on Adam’s ailment proves to be too much for Rachel to handle and she bails. This gives the two gentlemen the opportunity to live it up and use Adam’s cancer as a way of meeting women. Such recourse proves typically unfulfilling, as it becomes clear where Adam’s heart is as he bonds closer with his young therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick).
The screenplay is based on Will Reiser’s own battle with cancer. Yet throughout the whole film you rarely see a moment where Adam actually battles the severity of the disease. Most of the time, Adam and Kyle merely beat around the bush, attempting to get laid and smoking pot. The moments where Adam is with his mother (Anjelica Huston) are the film’s most emotionally poignant and serve to elevate the film as a whole – when Adam is preparing for his life-or-death surgery, Adam reaches out for his mother in such a crushing scene of dependence that I could not help but get teary-eyed.
But as effective a scene as it is, it’s simply a scene in a larger pastiche that doesn’t entirely connect. I did not believe for a second that two people like Kyle and Adam could be best friends – despite Kyle’s loyalty, his crass oafishness works in direct opposition to Adam’s more quiet and subdued nature. And what has now become typical of these bromance films is 50/50’s rather objectionable portrayal of women – Bryce Dallas Howard is a conniving user of Adam, whereas Anna Kendrick’s character not only lacks professional integrity, she’s portrayed as a sort of naïve little girl whose inexperience makes her more of a school girl caricature than a woman. There are bits and pieces to the film that are effective, in so far as they’re either mildly amusing, emotionally touching, or both. But these scenes operate in a very contained fashion, allowing 50/50 to work a little more than half the time.