Seth Rogen played a young cancer patient’s doofus bud just two years ago in Judd Apatow’s underrated Funny People so, when I first saw the trailer for 50/50, I couldn’t help wondering why he’d be interested in taking on such a similar role. Turns out there’s a pretty good reason. It’s a role he played in real life.
The film was written by Will Reiser, a TV producer and comedy writer who was diagnosed with a spinal tumor while still in his twenties. His script is based largely on actual events and it just so happened that Rogen is one of Reiser’s closest friends. Much of what made it onto the screen really took place. Maybe all that practice playing the supportive goofball explains how this came to be the actor’s finest screen performance to date.
Reiser’s stand-in is a 27 year old Seattle NPR reporter named Adam Lerner, played to understated perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Early on, a back ache prompts him to undergo a battery of tests and lands him in the office of a jarringly indifferent doctor who coldly informs him he’s as likely to die as survive. The creep is so unfeeling I might have suspected the screenplay of exaggerating for dramatic effect if not for the fact that my father had an identical experience the day he was given a terminal diagnosis.
Understandably, he’s stunned. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink,” Gordon-Levitt blurts out disbelievingly. “I recycle!” What follows is a virtual reinvention of the disease of the week movie, the last thing one had any reason to expect from director Jonathan Levine (whose most recent film was The Wackness and whose previous effort was never even released). Has somebody been going to night school?
Rogen’s character, Kyle, is nearly as scared as his friend but knows instinctively he can help best by keeping things light. Hence the hilarious scenes in which he brings him to bars and encourages him to use his bald head and bad news to get sympathetic chicks into bed. And, of course, a steady supply of medical marijuana doesn’t hurt. The funny thing is the prescription isn’t Adam’s. Kyle scores it by faking night blindness.
Naturally, the movie isn’t all fun and games. Issues such as mortality, loyalty and the complex dynamics of family are all addressed head on, just never in the hanky-wringing way lesser films have conditioned us to expect. Not that the occasional tear is out of the question. Based on uh, what I observed in the theater.
Anjelica Huston is particularly moving as Adam’s mother. Initially she comes off as simply smothering. But then you learn that his father has been lost to the fog of Alzheimer’s and empathize with her and her need to be there for someone who’ll actually realize she’s there.
Levine has even figured out a way to fit a love story into his tragicomedy without it coming off as forced or fake. Adam’s hospital-referred therapist is played by Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick. She’s 24. He’s the third patient she’s ever treated. “What are you-Doogie Howser?,” he asks at their first session. The punch line being she’s too young even to get the joke.
This is a picture which took me totally by surprise, a story that manages to be tremendously touching and fall down funny while nimbly side stepping every cliché of the genre. From the pitch-perfect performances and inspired writing to Levine’s out-of-the-ballpark direction, 50/50 is that rarest of cinematic cases: A sure thing.