In many ways, comedy has an ability to discuss and demonstrate tragedy better than drama ever can. Perhaps it’s in the act of laughing, opening up our emotions in such an enjoyable and positive way that allows us to be more deeply affected and face the hard facts of life with a better sense of clarity and humanity. That seems to be the intention behind Jonathan Levine’s film ’50/50’, taking a supremely talented cast and a bitingly funny screenplay, and dropping it smack-bang into that beautiful middle ground between the funny and the devastating.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) keeps every facet of his life in check with healthy and slightly neurotic routines. A visit to the doctor, however, throws his structure into chaos. Adam is diagnosed with an incredibly rare form of cancer, giving him a 50/50 chance of survival. Coming to his aid are his ratbag best friend Kyle (Seth Rogan) and his flighty girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), but as Adam begins to unravel, so do his relationships. All he has to hold him together might be his inexperienced psychologist Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who seems to be as unsure of what to do as he is.
There is a youthful abandon and rigor in Levine’s approach to ’50/50’, simple in its execution yet full of bravado in the chaos he lets free on-screen. Mortality and serious illness aren’t treated with reverence or respect, but not disrespect either. Adam’s fight is just what it is - a fact of life he has to deal with, and while this makes for some gut-wrenching moments, it also celebrates the insanity and humour inherent in such a fight. At times, the film skirts the line of political correctness, but it does so in such a matter-of-fact tone that it never offends. Will Reisner’s screenplay is brimming with terrific observational and situational comedy, milked perfectly by Levine and his cast.
The heart of the film lies in the relationship between Adam and Kyle, the latter encouraging the former to loosen the grip on his life before he drives himself mad. Gordon-Levitt and Rogan are a magical combination, both at the top of their games. Gordon-Levitt is one of the most fascinating actors of his generation, and Adam is yet another transformation for him. The character is far from the suave and charismatic performances we’re used to from him, instead fumbling and painfully normal. There is an obsessive neurotic pathetic quality to him, at wonderful odds with Rogan’s lovably oafish abandon. While mostly there for comic effect, Rogan occasionally has a chance to show some of his dramatic acting chops, often with great restraint and subtlety. Sitting beside their bromance is Alex’s newly developing friendship with Katherine, another impressive performance from Anna Kendrick. Both Alex and Katherine are swimming in uncharted waters, and begin to rely on each other to deal with Alex’s confronting mortality.
Gordon-Levitt and Rogan are a magical combination, both at the top of their games. Gordon-Levitt is one of the most fascinating actors of his generation, and Adam is yet another transformation for him.
The supportive cast are just as exciting. Bryce Dallas Howard is perfect as the annoyingly perfect Rachael - her presence grating every time she appears, especially when pitted against her antagonist Kyle. Almost stealing every scene she appears is Angelica Huston as Adam’s overbearing mother Diane, an absolutely wonderful and detailed performance where this truly great actor switches instantly from hysterically funny to heartbreaking.
It’s that switch that makes ’50/50’ such a fulfilling and joyous experience to watch. In a similar vein to Marc Webb’s ‘(500) Days of Summer’ (2009), it’s a fearless film in the face of material that, at first glance, doesn’t seem that appropriate for a laugh. These are ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, and devoid of any surprising and unrealistic turns of fate or luck, we see something we can relate to and understand. We put ourselves in Adam’s shoes, and as much as that makes us cry with him, it also lets us wet our pants laughing with him. This is a genuine film, a perfect example of what makes American independent cinema so exciting, and the definition of what a great comedy should be.
’50/50’ is only on a limited release, so check in your city for where it is showing. In Melbourne, it will have an exclusive season at Cinema Nova in Carlton.