Republished from MOVE Magazine
There’s an unwritten rule in the annals of comedy on the boundaries of tactfulness: You can usurp thoughtful consideration if the joke’s good enough. It is this code that gives movies like Jonathon Levine’s “50/50” the right to exist.
On the surface, the film is about using cancer to get laid. Kyle, played by Seth Rogen, uses, if not abuses, the situation his friend Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in to get both of them the proverbial “some.” Strangely, Kyle’s obsessively phallic jokes frequently fall on their uncouth, boorish, sterile faces. More strangely, the downfall of the film’s primary justification does little to prevent “50/50” from doing its un-comedic diligence of developing a slew of affecting, captivating characters.
(Rogen, it should be noted, was the only plausible choice for the role, given that he was essentially playing himself. His friendship with the film’s screenwriter and inspiration for Gordon-Levitt’s character, Will Reiser, was the preface for the plot, and Rogen’s Hollywood sway nudged the product toward fruition.)
The hardships Adam endures are more often personal than medical. His girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, cheats on him with a bearded art-type and his best friend seems more concerned with the female reproductive organ than the tumorous spine Adam stomachs. Angelica Huston puts the “mother” in “smother,” which necessitates Adam to distance himself from his mom’s domineering parenting and his dad’s dolefully oppressive Alzheimer’s.
His problems are documented and psychoanalyzed by Katie McCay (Anna Kendrick), an inexperienced psychologist three years his younger. His begrudging reluctance to accept help gradually evolves into one of the more charming bonds ever made in a therapist ward.
Here is where “50/50” presents us with, appropriately, a dichotomy. The earnest personalities serve as ample opportunity for exploration of complex issues faced by terminal relationships. Unfortunately, “50/50” is rather half-assed in its execution in this regard. With Katie’s role in Adam’s saga, Kendrick, lacking any trace of her typical irksomeness manages to become, surprisingly and refreshingly and irresistibly, cute. But then the film goes and figuratively sets Howard’s character aflame, which seems a little unfair and entirely counter-intuitive after giving the role so much development.
In a parallel sense, Adam’s mother is salvaged through her obvious and unrelenting dedication to her family, further exposed by the revelation of her cancer support group visits. Yet, the attempt to mend Kyle’s persona, splattered with selfishness and insensitivity, is far too little, too late to leave Rogen standing anywhere near benevolence.
In the film’s defense, death is an infinitely complex topic for a director to tackle; it’s a challenge for any cinematographic work to give the subject its due justice, much less a comedy with the guy from “Knocked Up.” Praise can be given for Levine’s eagerness to raise questions like, “What the hell are you supposed to do when your boyfriend has cancer?” and “Does a mother ever stop being a mother?” and “Is it OK to date your therapist?”
The lack of complete development in “50/50” leaves something to be desired thematically, but emotionally the film hits the nail on the shaven, bald head. Tears were shed. Laughs were had. Sometimes at the same time. And that’s the reward reaped when making a dark comedy. Gordon-Levitt and Co. make the most of what exploration Levine does take. It’s better to have raised issues and left them unanswered than to have never raised them in the first place. Clearly, getting halfway there is better than going nowhere at all.
4 out of 5