A single scene captures the tricky tonal balance of Jonathan Levine's cancer comedy 50/50. Adam, the straightedge radio producer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has just finished his first round of chemotherapy. It was tough, but the kindly gents IV'd next to him (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) made it easier by sharing their brownies. As the Bee Gees play on the soundtrack, Adam wanders through the oncology ward in a stoned haze and giggles at the sad-looking patients, harried nurses, and shrouded corpses as they float by.
It's complicated making a movie like 50/50, which was written by Will Reiser based on his own early-20s experience with a tumor on his spine. That scene, and the whole film, really, intermingles anonymous tragedy with blunt comedy, but uneasily — in a way that suggests that though it's OK to laugh, we shouldn't exactly feel good about it. (Indeed, moments later, Adam doesn't feel too good either, barfing miserably as the chemo's side effects kick in.)
Although it veers maudlin in its final act — helped neither by Michael Giacchino's unusually sappy acoustic score nor by Levine's metronomic choice to end every scene with its twangy strains — 50/50 mostly succeeds as a movie about a young man fighting cancer that doesn't give in to sap or sentiment. While it's often quite funny, it's more often angry; indeed, the most welcome transformation Adam makes isn't from sick to well but from milquetoast to asshole.
This is not how it usually goes in Hollywood films, when illness so often turns heroes and heroines into shorn-bald saints. Cancer does make Adam a better man, in a way: Once a "Don't Walk"-obeying, nail-biting welcome mat, Adam dumps his duplicitous girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, even more villainous than in The Help), pushes away his overbearing mother (a touching and underused Anjelica Huston), and offers his therapist (Anna Kendrick, fussy and endearing) some bracing sarcasm.
The anger in 50/50 is often so intensely focused that we can only presume Reiser's targeting individuals from his own experience: a doctor, perhaps, who delivered a cancer diagnosis into a tape recorder as if he weren't even there and then described his shattering condition as "really quite fascinating." The script is particularly sharp on the ways that cancer paints other people into behavioral corners, as when Rachael faces the choice of swallowing her doubts about her relationship with Adam or being the girl who ditched her brave cancer boyfriend.
I'm glad, of course, that Reiser survived his illness and glad as well that he transformed a truly awful personal experience into something interesting and worthwhile for public consumption. But I sure hope that the part about the horrible girlfriend is fictionalized — maybe a story point that one of 50/50's 12 named producers insisted upon? — because, despite Howard's best efforts to humanize the role, it's a pitiless portrayal of malignant cruelty. No one, not even the cheatingest bitch in the bitchiverse, deserves to be immortalized like this.
On the other hand, there's the movie's only constant: Adam's good pal Kyle (Reiser's actual good pal Seth Rogen). Kyle might be able to relate to his buddy's illness only with nervous jokes, but he sticks with him through head-shaving, surgery, and despair. He reads cancer books on the john! He is a good person! And this is what makes 50/50 not only a cancer movie but also a Seth Rogen movie. Bros before hos before neurofibroma sarcoma schwannomas.