Not that cancer has difficulty finding an agent, but cancer somehow manages frequently to transfer its plague (note: not the plague) to movies. Just the notion of the subject arouse memories of overly weepy Hallmark movies of the week. Too often we get the feeling that all the filmmaker knows about caner is that it is sad. We’re saturated with the “I have cancer” schmaltz now to the point where it’s more likely a punchline or a plot crutch than something to be taken seriously.
Well cancer, fear no more: you have a new champion! 50/50 has kicked down the door for all the cancer to come (in movies).
The premise is simple to the point of being dangerously thin: what is it really like for a guy to get cancer in his twenties? However, screenwriter Will Reiser couldn't be better equipped to flesh out the details, having based the film on his own experience beating cancer at the same time in his life.
He has not only defeated the stigma of cheese that haunts cancer in film generally. Additionally, we feel so at home with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he struggles in relationships with himself and those around him that Reiser manages to take a subject which on its face is extraordinarily potent, and have us feel he's crafted something from nothing.
Seth Rogen is peculiarly perfect as Adam's (Gordon-Levitt) girl-obsessed frat boyish best friend Kyle, until you realize that the role isn't much of a stretch. It turns out Rogen has been friends in real life with Reiser since before the latter's diagnosis, helping him get the film produced. As Rogen turns in likely the best performance of his career thus far, we won't hold it against him.
Rogen acting is in good company too, with Anna Kendrick. Her character’s awkward and terribly earnest desperation to be efficacious as Adam's inexperienced doctoral student therapist lets through a comic timing that makes part of me wish she'd become a full-time comedian. Kendrick’s performance rivals her critically lauded turn in 2009's Up in the Air (despite the roles being plucked from the same gene pool).
Anjelica Huston makes an impressive appearance as Adam's doting but neglected mother, displaying her gift of embodying a role so completely as to make her every previous role become invisible in the face of the current performance.
While I hesitate to call it a slice of life picture considering the ambition of what it tackles, in the end this is the feeling it leaves us with. It is a slice that addresses one's relationships in the face of mortality with a rare honesty that only recalls a few pictures in recent years; Tamara Jenkins' underrated The Savages from 2007 springs to my mind.
It is a comedy of course, and though they may be subtle there is definitely no shortage of laughs. So if you're looking for something both light and durable – a satisfying balance in this case – look no further. I bet you'll be pleased.