'50/50' Is Surprisingly Touching, Funny and Intelligent

50/50'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.


Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, Anjelica Huston
Rated: R
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-09-30 (General release)
UK date: 2012-01-06 (General release)

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.