A 27-year-old writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) of radio programs and is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. With the help of his best friend, his mother, and a young therapist at the cancer center, Adam learns what and who the most important things in his life are.
The life-hiccup that writer/producer Will Reiser faced when diagnosed with cancer is conveyed with warmth, honesty and a large dollop of good humour in Jonathon Levine’s 50/50.
In a Gen-Y Terms of Endearment that bullseyes both the existential dilemma and piercing clarity that cancer sufferers experience, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a public-radio segment producer and all round good-guy whose incessant back pain leads to the discovery of a fierce tumour that is eating away at the bone and muscle of his lower back (a condition known as schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma). His way of coping with the news is to minimise its impact on others; scenes immediately following the diagnosis show him trying to calm those in his life, including self-centred girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), boozy/player best friend Kyle (a wonderful Seth Rogen) and smothering mother Diane (Angelica Houston).
It is not until Adam is forced to focus on himself, first with therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick), then with his chemotherapy posse (Phillip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer), that he fully accepts his affliction and develops the mental fortitude required to defend its assault on his crumbling body.
Gordon-Levitt, an actor who, arguably, has emerged as the most compelling young star of the last half-decade (Brick, 500 Days of Summer, Inception), transforms himself in a role that demands nuance and subtlety. Adam is a subdued, gentle man; the news of his disease boils beneath the surface of Gordon-Levitt’s performance for most of the film until he finally erupts with emotion. His chemistry with Rogen (executive producer and Reiser’s real-life best friend) is pitch-perfect and provides far more belly-laughs than one would expect from this sort of material. Some of the jokes are improvised and gloriously crude, the best of which is when Rogen’s Kyle cites outdated examples in a pep talk about cancer survivors.
Most winningly, 50/50 (so named for the survival ratio) is not merely about how one man copes with his mortality, but how it reveals to him the goodness of the people in his life. It’s damn-near impossible to contain one’s lumpy throat when Adam learns that his mother, a constant source of frustration, has secretly been attending a parents-with-kids-with-cancer group, or his discover of a well-thumbed 'Living with Cancer’ book in Kyle’s bathroom.
Levine’s film reinforces the notion that a life-threatening disease does not change just one life but many and that it takes the combined strengths of your loved ones to combat the psychological burden. Few films have captured that inherently human quality as potently as 50/50.
Footnote: I was forced to seek out a US DVD copy to provide this coverage. Roadshow Films shuffled the film around its release schedule for several months no doubt hoping award season credibility would do what their marketing division seemed incapable of achieving. (There were no screenings or DVDs available for national critics.) The film will play in a single Melbourne location prior to a July home video release. It continues the Australian company’s lack of commitment to edgy cinema programming; the same fate befell I Love You Phillip Morris and very nearly 2010’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, which Roadshow slated for a home video premiere before Australian critic groups spoke up in its defence. An Independent Spirit and National Board of Review award winner and nominated for two Golden Globes, 50/50 deserved greater respect.