Apparently the world is very close to ending (in a matter of weeks, actually, if you believe everything you read), because Seth Rogen is darn near stellar in a movie… and also because a movie about a young adult who’s diagnosed with a Schwannoma spinal tumor is funny, uplifting, and life-affirming.
Neither of those things happen with any regularity in the world of cinema… but you get them both in 50/50. And just like that, Oscar has a new contender.
Based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s real-life battle with a tumor (and his real-life friendship with Rogen) 50/50 tells the tale of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a writer for Seattle Public Radio who gets the diagnosis when he’s 27 (from a particularly apathetic doctor, to boot).
His mother (Angelica Huston) takes the news about as well as could be expected from a woman whose husband is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. His girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) puts up a good front, but we all know she isn’t long for this relationship. And his best friend (Rogen) sees the cancer diagnosis as a perfect way to help his perpetual quest for nookie.
Then there’s his newfound support staff, including fellow patients (brief brilliant performances by Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) and so-young-she-doesn’t-know-who-Doogie-Howser-is therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick).
Through it all, there’s Adam, the squeaky-clean young man who, for all intents and purposes, believes he was just given a death sentence, sixty years too soon.
Because Reiser wrote the film after his own diagnosis there’s a level of realism at work here that hits you like a bolt. To call it ‘touching’ neglects the razor-sharp wit, and to call it ‘gut-wrenching’ neglects the sporadic goofiness that elevates 50/50 from the maudlin drivel it could have become.
Rogen has finally turned in the performance of his career, and though he doesn’t shy too far from the frat-boy/stoner image he’s come to be known for, here it works because there’s such an intense sense of honesty that comes with it. Kendrick literally lights up the screen every time she appears (which, thankfully, is often), and Huston is perfectly cast; it’s a welcome return after being away too long. (Let’s say we just don’t count last year’s When In Rome.)
But it’s Gordon-Levitt who steers this ship with incredible precision and raw emotion, playing Adam almost as an extension of his Tom Hansen character from 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. He’s a quiet everyman who is instantly sympathetic and relatable, and the performance is sure to be remembered come awards season.
50/50 could have been unbearable, particularly for people who have dealt with cancer first-hand (and who among us hasn’t, in some way?), but instead we’re treated to one of the best ensembles of the year in one of the best movies of the year.