I have a problem, you guys. I’m afraid that if I’m completely honest with you about how much I liked 50/50, you won’t respect me anymore. It tickled me right in the sentimental parts I don’t like to talk about at parties, and now those parts are all moist, and I’m afraid if I tell you about them that it would just be gross. But here goes.
We can call it a “cancer comedy” if it makes you feel better, but the dirty little secret of 50/50 is that it’s kind of a rom-com. And my dirty little secret is that I kind of really like rom-coms (the ones that are good, that people don’t normally think of as rom-coms). But that’s what it is. A contemporary story about love, relationships, friends, and family, that also happens to be pretty funny a lot of the time. Oh, and also cancer, but we’ll get to that.
Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine of The Wackness, 50/50 is a personal story based on Reiser’s real-life diagnosis with cancer when he was in his late twenties, and how he and his friends, like Seth Rogen, dealt with it (the “50/50” of the title refers to what he was told his chances of survival were). Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, the fictionalized Reiser; Rogen plays Kyle, the fictionalized Rogen. (It must suck for Rogen that he lost all that weight and JGL still gets to play the cancer patient, but between this and Funny People, he has “guy whose friend has cancer” on lock.)
Anyway, Adam and Kyle both work at NPR, and their first scene together gets the film off to a rocky start. They’re discussing Adam’s girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who he hasn’t slept with for three weeks. Schlubby, slobby Kyle thinks this is a problem, while fussy, dainty Adam convinces himself that it’s okay because “their relationship is based on more than sex.” The scene doesn’t work for the exact reason the rest of the film does work: they’re playing archetypes (also, we’ve seen that scene like a billion times before). Characters that are types instead of people are the reason I never liked Entourage, and why every conversation in Sex in the City is a variation on the same thing.
MIRANDA: Carrie, you should tell that jerk to piss off because feminism!
SAMANTHA: No way, Carrie, you should screw him because sex is empowering.
CHARLOTTE: Ooh, I don’t know you guys, I’m repressed and old fashioned, vagina wax makes me cry.
Bumpa da bumpa da bump. But after the first scene, Rogen and JGL quickly settle into a relationship where they relate to each other in a way that’s recognizable to other late 20-something males, and that alone is incredibly refreshing. I’m sure it helps that Reiser is working through his own ordeal here and not trying to write exposition for a story about vampires, aliens, and the military, but the point is, the characters feel like people. Thus, it’s a lot easier to care about them.
Patton Oswalt once joked that all romantic comedies could be called “…Trying to F*ck.” (This summer, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are, Trying to F*ck”). 50/50‘s backdrop is cancer, but it could be called “Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick Are Trying to F*ck.”
Truth be told, I reeeeally wanted them to f*ck. And having this sad, serious ordeal like cancer looming over the whole enterprise really lowers the bar for comedy. People are a lot more eager to laugh when there’s a little sadness and reality mixed in than when you’re just in a contrived situation complaining about airline food or having Sandra Bullock’s Blackberry get stolen by an eagle. 50/50 is essentially an entire film built around that dance between serious and funny.
There’s a compelling strand with Bryce Howard and JGL’s character exploring what happens to a relationship that’s already starting to go south when one party gets cancer, then a love triangle, then a subplot with Adam’s mother (played brilliantly by Anjelica Huston) and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, mixed in with main story of Adam and Kyle talkin’ about chicks and tryin’ to get laid (during cancer). They all come together just so. (Not to mention a possible topic of post-movie discussion: would you tell your best friend that his girlfriend is cheating on him while he’s in the middle of trying to beat cancer?)
It’s hard to explain what’s so enjoyable about 50/50, other than to say that I saw a lot of myself and my friends in Adam and Kyle, a lot of me and my mom in JGL and Anjelica Huston, and on and on. It’s a personal movie that hit me on a personal level. Hey, Hollywood, can we have a few more of those? It’s a sentimental rom-com that isn’t afraid to let a sympathetic character call a girl the C-word or make Patrick Swayze jokes, and I like that. Also, I imagine it’s an incredibly effective date movie. When it was over I almost screwed the guy next to me, and he was a 250-pound film critic.
My only other criticism, aside from the first scene is, can we stop dressing Joseph Gordon-Levitt in cute little ties and pea coats and fuzzy sweaters and vests for entire films, please? He looks like a goddamned Jonas brother. I promise, stylists, you can de-accessorize and he’ll still be cuddly.
Other notes: You can hear more of the background of the story in my roundtable interview with Seth Rogen and Will Reiser at the end of this frotcast. Sorry the other roundtable people are so boring.