I’ve never had cancer, but for the past several years I’ve been dealing with lung problems that, in 2007, put me in the hospital for three weeks, and has led to a constant battle with going on and off of oxygen. In addition to my own health issues, I know several people who have had their own issues with cancer, MS, and Lupus. I think I can safely speak for all of them when I say, unless you’ve had to come face-to-face with your own mortality, no one can really understand what you go through in such situations.
The wonderful film “50/50,” written by Will Reiser (who based the movie on his own experiences in battling spinal cancer), is a good first step towards understanding. The film’s most extraordinary accomplishment is not treating the journey of Reiser’s alter ego, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as a Lifetime movie of the week but rather an honest and sometimes blunt trip through trying to cope with an extraordinary situation. Reiser’s script carries the full weight of painful truth, while also making Adam’s story perversely entertaining. This is the second film Summit Entertainment has released this year that doesn’t trivialize the hard reality of illness with the wicked wit it delivers in the process; like the earlier film, Jodie Foster’s criminally underseen “The Beaver,” director Jonathan Levine’s handling of this material is spot-on, and makes “50/50” one of the very best films of the year.
Helping Reiser bring this story to the screen is Seth Rogen, the writer’s real-life friend who, along with his writing and producing partner Evan Goldberg (they did “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” together), spent years getting the film produced. Their efforts were not in vein, as we sit riveted from the moment Adam, a producer at Seattle Public Radio, gets the news from his doctor of his condition through various ups-and-downs involving Adam’s parents (Anjelica Huston and Serge Houde); his live-in, artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard, who makes the character’s emotional dilemmas profoundly moving); his sessions of chemotherapy, and a couple of older cancer patients (played by Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) Adam becomes friends with; his therapy sessions with a doctoral student (Anna Kendrick) ill-experienced in offering guidance in such a situation; and his friendship with Rogen’s Kyle, who helps as best he can with his friend’s emotional journey, but who also seems the have his own agenda in trying to help Adam out. It’s the scenes between Adam and Kyle that result in many of the funnier, and sometimes outrageous, moments of the film, but in a way, they’re also some of the truest: Kyle is being the best friend he can be by not focusing on the gloom of the situation, but trying to lift Adam’s spirits by taking him out and trying to get him laid; by taking a piece of Dallas Howard’s artwork out back and destroying it; and by getting a prescription for medicinal marijuana they can smoke together. Okay look, I didn’t say Kyle (or Seth, as the case may be) was right in doing these things.
In the end, “50/50” is all heart, and not in that happy/sappy way “The Bucket List” was. (Sorry, I enjoy that film, but it’s got nothing on this slice of life.) This is provided by Anna Kendrick’s therapist, who gets some real education from Adam as much as she gives him in their sessions, and in a late-night phone call on the eve of Adam’s operation on the tumor. Kendrick’s youthful perkiness adds much to the character, and her uncertainty in how to deal with Adam’s struggle is palpable, and every bit as engaging as Adam’s arc, which includes helping Adam connect with his mother, who goes into overbearing, protective mother mode the second she finds out about Adam’s condition. Of course, after years of caring for Adam’s father, who has Alzheimer’s, this is second nature for her. This is one of Anjelica Huston’s finest performances, and in a rather hard-to-predict Oscar race, she deserves to be near the top of any list of five supporting actresses alongside Kendrick.
That being said, I would trade nominations for those two (as well as talk for Rogen, who really deserves a strong look from Oscar voters) if it assured slots for both Reiser’s bold, bawdy screenplay and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance. The former “3rd Rock From the Sun” actor continues to impress in a dynamic range of roles; sure, he hammed it up heavily in “G.I. Joe,” and had little to work with in “Inception,” but his string of triumphs– “Mysterious Skin,” “Brick,” “The Lookout,” “Stop-Loss,” “(500) Days of Summer” –is remarkable nonetheless, and in “50/50,” bringing to life the trials his screenwriter actually experienced, he is at the very top of his game. Very few performances this year have been so full of life, and so versatile in the moods and tones they bring to the screen. As someone whose life has experienced some of those same highs and lows, albeit in not quite the same way, I appreciate the passion in his work all the more, and the authenticity of the film in showing what it takes to live through such hardships, with friends and loved ones dead center in the middle of it.