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October 2, 2011

As Oscar season ramps up there are a few tried and true subjects that let actors work out their gravitas, and there are few better than cancer. And maybe because of its popularity it has a tendency to degenerate into kitchy and weepy sentimentality. In fact, the illness is almost incidental; a MacGuffin that at best gets used to highlight the dying character’s relationships to those around them, and at worst — as we’ve seen recently — gets used to highlight some other character entirely. That’s why I’m so glad to find that 50/50 is a soberingly honest look at what it can be like to be a young adult and have cancer.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in a good place. He’s 27, loving his job in Seattle Public Radio, and his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) has started to move into his house. He’s just been having a little back pain recently, so he goes to see a doctor about it, only to have a pretty massive spinal tumor show up on an MRI.

And suddenly Adam becomes The Guy Who Has Cancer. His mother (Anjelica Huston) flips out; his girlfriend struggles to be supportive; his crude friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen) doubles down on the bright-side thinking. Adam’s oncologist is little help, talking more to his voice recorder than to Adam, and his therapist (Anna Kendrick) is still a graduate student and is completely unprepared for this. The best support he gets, actually, comes from the friends he meets in chemotherapy, Alan and Mitch (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer).

It’s actually not surprising that 50/50 rings so true, since it’s loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences. It also helps that director Jonathan Levine brings an indie sensibility that’s more given to cynicism and black humor than to long-awaited rapprochements and slate-clearing. We see that no matter what else was going on, cancer has a way of becoming the focal point of every scene in your life.

Gordon-Levitt has a lot to do with how realistic Adam’s reaction comes across. His emotional arc feels utterly natural from the early preternatural calm to the eventual angry release to the coming-to-terms that follows. His body language is perfect, communicating an underlying tension even as he claims to be fine.

Rogen is pretty much himself, as always. But this time he does have an excuse: he’s basically playing himself, in the same relation to Adam as he was to Reiser in real life. And he does react pretty much like a lot of guys I know would, because nobody expects to have to deal with this sort of thing in their late twenties or early thirties.

But I have to say that Hall and Frewer absolutely steal every scene they’re in. This isn’t just an unusual cancer movie because Adam is particularly young; Alan and Mitch are at a more usual age, and yet they still feel more like actual cancer patients than the usual cinematic fare.

50/50 may be Oscar bait, but it goes after the awards honestly, by making a really good movie. It’s emotionally brutal, and yet keeps its humor, which holds it back from turning insufferably lachrymose. Because if you don’t laugh in the face of something like cancer, you’ll cry all the time, and nobody wants to watch that.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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