Adam Lerner has a nice house in a quiet neighborhood, where he spends time with his wannabe artist girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard). He works at a small public-access radio station with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and has just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Thus begins 50/50, the “cancer comedy” from director Jonathan Levine, loosely based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser.
Psychologist Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick) is 23, scatterbrained and disorganized, and has almost no experience working with patients that are dealing with circumstances of this magnitude. She tries her best to get Adam to respond, and as he slowly becomes less withdrawn, they begin to develop a rapport that is awkward and charming, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. With support from Kyle, Katherine, his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston), and a pair of fellow chemotherapy patients, Adam does his best to remain positive, but it’s not long before the pressures of dealing with the disease on a daily basis begin to wear him down.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in yet another top-notch performance, committing himself completely to the role (he even shaves his head for the part). He’s able to convey so much by doing so little, and gives distinct purpose to every glance, smile, or gesture. Adam Lerner isn’t just a character projected onto a screen – Gordon-Levitt turns Adam into a living, breathing human being, as real as the person sitting next to you in the theater.
The friendship between Adam and Kyle feels authentic and genuine, thanks to the superb on-screen chemistry between the two actors. Rogen in particular brings a warmth and sincerity that is reminiscent of his performance in Knocked Up, and despite the rampant vulgarity that has made him a comedic superstar, his character has a lot more heart than the audience initially gives him credit for. And after garnering a slew of awards and nominations for her performance in Up In the Air, Anna Kendrick’s portrayal of an insecure young doctor that finds herself in way over her head continues to prove that she is a remarkable young actress, and her performance should once again have critics and moviegoers buzzing.
The phrase “cancer comedy” is bound to raise a few eyebrows, and some might assume that the film may not handle the subject matter with the proper amount of sensitivity and respect. Those fears can be put to rest, as 50/50 is a moving, poignant film, one that continues to surprise the viewer as it refuses to fall into a tried-and-true formula, striving for originality rather than allowing itself to become caught up in melodrama. There have been plenty of well-made movies over the year that deal with similar subject matter, but very few have taken a comedic approach, and certainly none as successfully as this one.