There’s nothing terribly funny about cancer, chemotherapy or all of the terrible side-effects that occur. Somehow being poisoned to kill cells that are slowly eating away at you just doesn’t scream comedy. Neither does losing your hair. And yet, here was have 50/50 a movie which makes you laugh until you cry, and then just cry. How it manages to slowly finesse that fine line between making jokes about a serious topic and engaging drama is pretty wonderful. That it never delves into poor taste is even better.
I think, and pardon the wording, it’s a 50/50 split between the script and the acting that makes the film so fulfilling. Remarkably free of a Hallmark-like sentimentality, which could have easily bogged down the whole film, and gloriously free of self-pitying, 50/50 hits that uncomfortable and awkward “real” place. Whenever our main character tries to pity himself or lash out against the world, his friends, family and therapist are there to explain that he has every right to feel these things and it’s normal, healthy even, but it’s also not anybody’s fault. Hell, there’s a scene late in the film in which he rages against his best friend’s seemingly self-centered and aggrandizing behavior and attitude. How could his friend not care about his impending possible death and just think about trying to get in one last party? As it turns out, his friend has been reading, highlighting and bookmarking several different books about dealing with cancer and how to help your loved ones get through it.
It’s the small touches like that which really speak volumes about the characters, their relationships and the real-world that they inhabit. There’s a very real plausibility that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character may not make it to the final scene. (Granted, since it’s based on the writer-director’s real-life struggle, the chances of him dying are remote. But enough setbacks, complications, and a supporting character’s death occur to remind us that dealing with a disease in reality is not the same as the glamorous suffering so often seen in the movies.)
And I cannot speak highly enough of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor. His charm and sophisticated good-looks make him leading man material, but he continually seeks out challenging films to be a part of, with an occasional detour into mainstream movies like Inception. He’s like a reverse movie-star, living in independent cinema with sporadic breaks for the huge budgets and tentpole franchises. He manages to make a very OCD, anal retentive character and make him charming, and with emotional precision taking us along every complicated step along his journey. His moments of darkness and light are given masterful treatment by Gordon-Levitt.
And, shockingly, he’s given perfect support from Seth Rogen, an actor I’ve never cared much for before this. But I was pleasantly surprised by his work here. It’s still very much in the “Seth Rogen-type,” but his buffoonery is given a deeper context in later scenes of the film.
The rest of the cast is nothing to scoff at either. Anna Kendrick continues to surprise me with her choices post-Oscar nomination for Up in the Air. She has a warmth and intellect that I appreciate, and she uses them effectively here as the green therapist who is in over her head. That her character will eventually become a love interest is the lone nit-pick I had with the film. I don’t feel as if it was required, and that it was just shoe-horned in at the request of the studio. But she and Gordon-Levitt make an attractive and appealing couple. Bryce Dallas Howard continues her streak of bitchery, but, mercifully, isn’t the moustache-twirling super-bitch of The Help here. And the always welcome and uber-talented Anjelica Huston delivers a touching, neurotic and needy performance as the mother who makes everything about her, somehow. But Huston, and the script, gives us several small windows into her soul and we see where the hurt and neediness is really coming from.
I went in to this film thinking it was going to be a “cancer comedy” and left it moved and confused as to my emotional state. Was I laughing because it had charmed and moved me, or was I laughing because I didn’t want to start crying in front of everybody? It’s the profoundly human-scale hurts and triumphs that made the movie so special. It was the honesty and the humor, the sometimes questionable jokes that still somehow range true. And, of course, the odd couple pair at the heart of the film that proves that sometimes the best way to deal with the shit in life is to have a best friend to make you laugh through it all.