It could have been agonizingly mawkish: the story of a young man with everything ahead of him who learns he has a rare form of spinal cancer, one that he only has a 50-percent chance of surviving. The premise alone sounds like an insufferable drag, an example of eat-your-vegetables cinema, regardless of the catharsis that might result.
Instead, “50/50” is consistently, uproariously funny, written with humanity and insight and directed with just the right tone every time.
Comedy writer Will Reiser crafted the script based on his own cancer diagnosis when he was in his early 20s. His words are filled with dark humor and a wry recognition of the gravity of this situation, but also with real tenderness. His characters are so well-drawn that even when you see obvious developments looming on the horizon, they still feel fresh and offer some moments of surprise.
And director Jonathan Levine (in a vast improvement over his last film, the self-conscious “The Wackness”) pulls us into this intimate world through an abiding naturalism. Levine has accomplished a tricky bit of juggling here: He’s made a film about cancer that’s effortlessly affecting.
It helps a great deal that he has Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor of great range and subtlety, in the starring role. His character, Adam, a reporter at Seattle’s public radio station, receives the diagnosis after having a doctor examine him for chronic back pain. Everyone around him reacts differently to the news, and not necessarily well. Adam goes through all the requisite stages of denial, frustration, fear and eventually acceptance, but he does so with such believable imperfection, he never feels like a saint or a martyr. He’s not always gracious in the face of adversity; he can be a little surly and smug and emotionally closed-off. He doesn’t even return phone calls from his understandably concerned mother (Anjelica Huston).
But Adam has a great balance in his lifelong best friend and co-worker, the garrulous and lovably crass Kyle (Seth Rogen), the kind of garrulous and lovably crass role Rogen has built a career upon. Again, though, here’s an example of how “50/50” sneaks up on you: You think you know this guy, and then he shows a kindness and generosity you’d never expect. And it gives Rogen, who’s also a producer on the film, a rare opportunity to show some dramatic ability. Sure, he uses his buddy’s illness to line up sympathy sex for both of them but, you know, he means well.
Similarly, Anna Kendrick may seem familiar to you as Adam’s inexperienced, young therapist, Katherine; it seems like the kind of eager-beaver, overachiever role Kendrick has played before in films like “Up in the Air” and “Rocket Science.” But there’s a softness we’ve not seen from her before, a femininity that’s appealing. Adam is only her third patient, and within her bungling and stiff gestures of sympathy lies not just a strong desire to help, but also to be perceived as helpful. Their exchanges increase in intensity and provide the film’s biggest source of emotion.
Bryce Dallas Howard, meanwhile, says all the right things but doesn’t really mean them as Adam’s girlfriend. She insists she’ll stick by him no matter what, but it’s clear from the start that she’s really trying to convince herself she’s capable of such loyalty. Howard is in a tough position here playing a woman of questionable decency, but Reiser’s script is decent enough to make her feel like a real human being — even as she flinches and flees from the horrors of chemotherapy.
Just when “50/50” threatens to become too unbearably sad, though, a character will say or do just the right thing to break the tension. It doesn’t let up necessarily, but it does provide a balance. And it concludes in the most delicate way, with a moment that’s a lovely mix of romanticism and restraint. Perfect endings are hard to come by: “50/50” has one, and it wraps up one of the year’s best films.