50/50 is not a Seth Rogen movie. Let’s clarify that right here. It’s not a raucous stoner comedy about a slacker with cancer using illness as an excuse to get high and go joyriding before he kicks it. There is some of that, but only some. It is a movie that’s surprisingly touching, as well as funny and intelligent. I never thought I’d walk out of a movie starring Seth Rogen with tears on my cheeks.
Rogen has never worked for me as a lead because he panders to the lowest common denominator; I don’t want to root for him when he gives me nothing to root for. But in 50/50, he takes second billing as Kyle, the comic relief to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s more balanced Adam, and they complement each other wonderfully. Gordon-Levitt gives you someone to root for in Adam, a real nice guy with layers of imperfection and complication. With a promising girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a great job as a public radio reporter in Seattle, and, as the cliché goes, his whole life ahead of him, Adam is informed by his startlingly callous doctor that he has spinal cancer and must undergo chemotherapy.
While absorbing the abject shock of the news, Adam tries to stay optimistic despite researching his survival chances on WebMD: 50%. Kyle, trying to boost Adam’s morale as much as his own, suggests Adam’s odds are great—if he were a casino game. Adam’s first chemotherapy treatment even leads him to think cancer isn’t all that bad, at least not for someone who’s only 27. But fellow chemo patients Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer) are not so young. They offer Adam their tin of marijuana-laced cookies and do their best to convince him just how terrible his life is about to become. All too soon, Alan and Mitch’s prophecy rings true, as the chemo begins to take its toll, and Adam’s girlfriend Rachel, despite promising to stand by him, reveals her lack of emotional fitness for the job. What Adam comes to learn, however, is nobody is ever emotionally prepared for such responsibility—not your girlfriend, your best friend, and especially not you.
50/50 looks at this lack of preparation from the perspective of someone who’s felt it: Seth Rogen. We’re probably all too accustomed to him playing himself onscreen, the idle, weed-obsessed man-child. But here, Rogen is on another level, even while playing himself. He actually lived this role six years ago, and his comedy, though still crude, has a purpose like it’s never had before. 50/50 is loosely based on the story of screenwriter Will Reiser: at age 24, when he and Rogen were writing for Da Ali G Show, Reiser was diagnosed with cancer and undertook the punishing road to recovery with his friend by his side.
Their journey together, marked by awkwardness, loyalty, fear, and affection, forms the film’s framework and provides it with humor that is both irreverent and a source of strength. Reiser’s script is filled with allusions to his battles, including arguments he had with Rogen, and a strained relationship with his overprotective mother, played in the movie by an underused Anjelica Huston.
Other elements of the film are not so true to life, but also revealing. Anna Kendrick appears as Katherine, a PhD student doing her fieldwork as Adam’s therapist, helping him to address his unexpressed grief and rage. Her by-the-book approach, in conflict with her attraction to Adam and her struggle with the emotional toll her work takes, demonstrate how his cancer has repercussions for those around him as much as himself.
In fact, the movie’s most affecting moments are those that underscore how friends and loved ones confront the responsibilities and pressures of caring for someone who’s terminally ill. On the eve of major surgery, Adam helps a drunken Kyle get home safely, where he finds a self-help book on how to support a friend with cancer in Kyle’s bathroom, marked up with notes and underlines. With his bald head and fatigued frame, Adam spends much of the movie garnering pity by reminding everybody that he might die. But in these few moments, he’s reminded that he’s not the only one repressing anger and grief over his condition.
Gordon-Levitt keeps this movie on its toes, his performance pairing vulnerability with stoicism in equal measure. He hits just the right notes of bitter disappointment and resentment, courting sympathy and sometimes earning criticism from his friends and family for, dare anyone say it, being too selfish in the face of death. 50/50 goes a step beyond the usual focus on a patient’s anger, depression, and isolation to show how cancer is inevitably a shared experience.