50/50 is the anti-MOW. Hot off the festival circuit as the much buzzed-about "cancer comedy," its hype doesn't tell the whole story. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), 50/50 is a dynamic blend of offhand humor and compelling character study. Just don't go in expecting one or the other.
Loosely based on his own experiences as a twenty-something cancer survivor, screenwriter Will Reiser assembles a flawed cast of characters for his retelling – himself most of all. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not a take-charge kind of guy. He greets his diagnosis with cynicism and reclusiveness, and at his age who can blame him? Holding his life at arm's length, he severs ties rather than strengthening them.
It's a notion that Levine actually undercuts. Whether it's his direction or just the conventions of a hero-narrative, Adam frequently comes off better than he deserves to. His cancer gives him carte blanche to abuse and ignore his friends and family, and it's important that those unflattering traits get their due. The cathartic climax is about tearing down those walls.
Levine is more forthcoming with the foibles of other characters. Seth Rogen plays Adam's pal Kyle, a predictably crass and outgoing foil to Gordon-Levitt's narcissistic introvert. Adam's girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) comes away looking particularly ugly, and is admonished by Kyle in one of 50/50's funniest scenes. Anjelica Huston and Anna Kendrick play Adam's overprotective mother and fledgling therapist, respectively, and Philip Baker Hall makes an appearance as a fellow cancer patient with an affinity for pot.
Rounding out the cast is Serge Houde as Adam's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Unlike Adam however, his condition seems superfluous, occasionally lending 50/50 the maudlin air of an issue film. Which is odd, because elsewhere the filmmakers strive to remove sentimentality from the equation. In fact, the nitty-gritty of Adam's treatment is relegated almost entirely to off-screen action. The film focuses instead on the impact it has on his life. Consequently, and in the interest of levity, the threat is diluted.
In that respect, 50/50 isn't even about cancer. The common storytelling mistake, as Reiser sees it, is treating the disease as subject; Reiser's subject is himself. Cancer is just the shitty thing that happened to him. The film begins like any other buddy comedy, and initially feels stilted because of it. Even the obligatory reveal and diagnosis of the disease comes across awkward. But it gradually builds into something significant.
The beauty of 50/50 is in the way its characters behave and bounce off each other. There's no bromance a la I Love You, Man – the friendship portrayed by Gordon-Levitt and Rogen is subtler. Adam's eventual turn from reticence to reliance makes his transformation as a character more compelling than his struggle with cancer. After all, it's not about that.
I don't envy the marketing team tasked with selling 50/50 to the general audience. Cancer isn't exactly a crowd-pleaser, but you can't bill it as a comedy without being at least a little disingenuous. Resier and Levine's film delivers a unique hybrid of emotion and entertainment that tries, not always successfully, to pave new territory – which is admirable in and of itself. Whether 50/50 is remembered more as a cavalier drama or dark comedy remains to be seen, but you can bet it won't go down in history as another after school special.