Seth Rogen played a 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 happens 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 accounts for how this came to be the actor’s finest screen performance to date.
Reiser’s stand-in is a 27-year-old Seattle National Public Radio reporter named Adam Lerner, played to understated perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Early on, a backache 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 to survive. The creep is so unfeeling that I might have suspected the screenplay of exaggerating for dramatic effect had my father not had an identical experience the day he was given a terminal diagnosis.
Understandably, the patient is 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 (2008) 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 that he can help best by keeping things light. Hence the hilarious scenes in which Kyle brings Adam 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 that 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 that 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 Adam’s 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 making it come 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 that she’s too young to get the joke.
This is a picture that took me totally by surprise, a story that manages to be tremendously touching and fall-down funny while nimbly sidestepping 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.