50/50 is an honest and funny film that dares to stare cancer in the face and laugh at the issues that it creates. I was not prepared for how accomplished this film would be. This is a true story, one that’s sad but oddly uplifting, and lead actor Joseph Gordon Levitt was absolutely perfect in his role – understated, never going too hard for the emotions, always feeling 100% natural. Seth Rogen was spot-on here as Levitt’s best friend who has to deal with the fact that his buddy has been given 50/50 odds of survival after being diagnosed with cancer. He’s always able to make us laugh with his affable stoner routine, but when Rogen wants to get serious, as he did here and in Sarah Polley’s obscenely underrated Take This Waltz, he can be very effective. And for 50/50 to work at all, it needed a lot of genuine humor, as there’s nothing remotely funny about the situation that JGL’s character is facing. Unfortunately, cancer has become one of those almost universal things in the world, and if you haven’t been affected by it personally, then you probably know someone who has, perhaps a friend, family member, or a close loved one. There’s a moment in the film where JGL makes a startling confession to his therapist (the always lovely Anna Kendrick, who exudes confidence and smarts and warmth in everything she appears in) that he just wants people to stop bull-shitting him and tell him straight up that he’s going to die. It’s a great moment of acting and direction and it was then that the movie grabbed me by the heart.
Director Jonathan Levine has had an interesting career, starting with the cult horror item All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, the 90’s marijuana-infused period piece The Wackness, and the cute and quirky zombie rom-com Warm Bodies; he’s a tough filmmaker to pin down. But as you watch the film unfold, you notice a seriously talented hand guiding this graceful movie, and it’s all the more impressive to learn that Levine was a last minute replacement for another filmmaker who apparently left the project over creative differences. The humor and pathos are well balanced, nothing goes over the top, and Levine’s unforced manner in which he directs his actors adds to the organic quality to the entire piece. Terry Stacey’s intimate and measured cinematography is stylish but never ostentatious, and the editing is sharp as a tack. And it’s got a killer soundtrack – I don’t remember a collection of semi-older-pop songs in a movie that’s as good or as well selected as the ones sampled here. Michael Giacchino’s score is subtle yet highly effective, and that right there is why 50/50 works as well as it does. It never hammers you over the head with how inherently sad the entire scenario is, and because Levine doesn’t wallow in anything for too long, nothing ever becomes maudlin in the way that lesser movies dealing with this subject matter have been.
But the best asset of the entire piece is Will Reiser’s tender screenplay, who based the work on his own experiences, with JGL portraying him on screen. While comfortably predictable in some respects, he gets so much right in the little details, and for the first time in a long time, I felt that the voices of the thirtysomethings in this film were 100% believable depictions of actual people living in the here and now. The dialogue felt true to the times and to the people speaking, and the frequently colorful (and often times laugh-out-loud-funny) vulgarity was just what friends would say to each other. Confusing and stressful interactions with doctors were skillfully handled, and tearful and painful discussions with parents are heartrendingly examined (Anjelica Houston nails a few scenes as JGL’s mom). Plus, there’s this terrific scene where JGL, Rogen, Philip Baker Hall (really good in an uncharacteristic role) and Matt Frewer all get high on medicinal marijuana, and I swear, the way it’s shot and cut – you feel like you’re getting a contact high because of Levine’s aesthetic. I absolutely love this movie. You laugh in all the right spots, you choke up when necessary, and the film has a quietly powerful quality that’s very tough to convey with words. And without spoiling anything, the ending is fair and earned and completely believable. This is a potent slice of filmmaking that deserves a higher profile.