Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Although 50/50 is at its best in it’s small, quite scenes, it is still, I think, invaluable that the film is a comedy. Of course the description of a 27 year old diagnosed with cancer doesn’t immediately scream laughter, but why should the film not be funny? In the face of complete uncertainly why be stripped of the one last tool we have to cope; to make the most of what could possible be the last moments of our lives; the one last thing we have control of that makes us unique and human? 50/50 isn’t a comedy by choice but by necessity. When we’re left to swim by ourselves; when the odds are in no one’s favour; and when it’s inevitable that, at some point in this big ugly process, we will most certainly be staring death in the face, by God the least we can be allowed to do is laugh.

And that’s what 50/50 does. It takes the most hopeless of situations and brings something human out of it. Is humour a way of keeping an arms length from the true gravity of the matter? Sure it is, but what else could a young protagonist want when faced with the untimely possibility that there is nothing really left for him to do except wait to see if he dies? It must be nice to know that, in spite of it all, when many want to treat you like a special sob case, there are friends out there who still know you’re not above a good joke.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is 27, works in radio, and is having back pain. Maybe he tried a new sex position and hurt himself offers best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). That can’t be, he and artist girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) haven’t had sex in three weeks.

Adam goes to the doctor for an MRI that reveals a rare form of cancer at the bottom of the spine. The plan is to shrink the large tumor down to a more manageable size with chemo and then cut it out. Adam’s odds of survival? About 50/50.

There’s no more need to describe the plot. Along the way we are introduced to Adam’s mother (Angelica Huston) who is overbearing, dealing with a husband who has Alzheimer’s and just wants to care for her poor sick baby who doesn't want to be reminded that he is a poor sick baby. There’s also Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is currently studying for her doctorate and is assigned to council Adam through the process.

The film is thus a way of going through the motions as Adam slowly, painfully, but not unwillingly takes every day as it comes, walking towards a conclusion that has no more reassurance than the question mark that exists at the end of the road.

Kyle does his best and Rogen provides much of the film’s comic relief as he helps Adam shave his head, uses his friend’s disease to pick up girls, gets high with him, and does his best to support Adam in the only way he can: by being his goofy but caring friend. When the news is broken to Kyle he is as hopeful as he knows how to be: if Adam were a casino game, he'd have the best odds in the house.

Along the way Adam also grows close to two other older chemo patients he meets during treatment. One of them is played by the invaluable Phillip Baker Hall, who has one of those Christopher Walken presences. Whenever he is on screen one perks up in expectation of something good going to happen and sure enough Hall walks away with some of the films most insightful and honest moments.

The film was written by Rogen’s friend Will Resier who apparently based the story on his own personal experiences and how Rogen tried to support him. And although it feels like the work of a first time screenwriter (it’s a little to tidy for its own good) it also captures the small, profound moments that only someone who has walked in these shoes could possible have dreamed up.

Director Jonathan Levine and his stars don’t back the film up into moments of big melodrama. Instead they keep it quite and human, finding truth in the small moments between friends and family as they all try to find the best way to cope with an impossible situation. The small treasure of the film is in its showing just that: as these people laugh, cry, look into oblivion and do their best to crack a smile. That’s all they can do. When the odds are 50/50 the ball’s in no one's court and the film thankfully doesn’t try to have it any other way.


  1. Made me laugh, made me come close to crying, and overall warmed my heart by the end. It's also my favorite film of the year but will probably not get too many notices come Oscar season. Good review Mike.

  2. Glad to see you liked this as much as I did, Mike. Without a doubt this is all about how people react when faced with circumstances of this sort. It's not just about Adam, it's about his friends and family, too, which I really liked-- it keeps the film from feeling too insular.