Striking a balance between comedy and drama is a slippery slope. It’s hard enough to capture the essence of one genre, but to try to weld two polar opposites together is a commendable feat. One of the latest film’s to admirably mishandle this equilibrium between conflicting genres is Judd Apatow’s Funny People, a disjointed movie that feels like two separate films stapled together. Apatow’s attempt with Funny People is interesting, but it can’t quite build a bridge to cover the inevitable gap between cancer drama and a rollicking comedy. Where Apatow failed, writer Will Reiser succeeds with his screenplay for 50/50. Based on the life he almost lost to cancer, Reiser’s screenplay for 50/50 is wonderfully balanced between our impending mortality and the potential healing power of laughter. Never once are there dramatic, grandstanding scenes. Nor are there moments where the characters become punch lines personified. Reiser takes a serious time in his life and transposes it from reality to the screen with assured grace and wholehearted honesty.
To get into specifics, 50/50 tells the tale of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the sudden discovery of a malignant tumor found on his spine. His chances of survival are what the title implies. Not the best diagnosis, but a silver lining seeps through the notion that the mortality scales are balanced. On the heels of the diagnosis, Adam begins chemotherapy treatment in the hopes he can shrink his body’s death trap. Struggling to handle the adverse side effects of the chemo and facing extreme guilt over the pressure he’s putting on his artistic, live-in girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam is coerced into seeing a psychologist to help him weather the physical and emotional storm. Unfortunately for Adam, he’s a guinea pig as his psychologist is the bubbly Katie (Anna Kendrick), a rookie in her field that’s never entirely sure as to what route her mental knowledge should take. Outside of a romantic relationship with Rachael and a professional one with Katie, Adam relies heavily on his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), whose sexual innuendos and craving for pot grants him the power to break the binding shackles of cancer. Together, all parties create a fine mess of dramatic tension and comedic interludes.
At the forefront of 50/50 is the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose welcoming and trusting face makes Adam instantly relatable. What is more important though is Levitt’s ability in going through the various stages that a person with a life threatening disease could face. Bitterness, emptiness, grief, a spring of inspiration, and in some ways, acceptance, are the various swings that Levitt must accomplish in the flesh of Adam, and he does so without missing a beat. Matching the pendulum of emotions that run through Adam and his battle with cancer is the nuanced guilt, the guilt of being a burden on a loved one, which Levitt poignantly demonstrates. It’s heartbreaking, especially when it creeps into the destruction of Adam’s romantic relationship, to see a person blame themself for a situation they can’t control. Despite the rather serious tones to Levitt’s performance and the arc of his character, there is a great amount of hope that pours out from a dire situation. Partly representing this hope is Seth Rogen as Kyle. Rogen’s crass humor and skewed view on the benefits of cancer are hilarious. As a matter of fact, outside of Adam’s budding romance with Katie and his distant relationship with his over loving mother (a controlled emotional disaster known as Angelica Huston), Rogen’s performance gives 50/50 much of its comedic power.
Oddly enough, the comedic timing and inhibited nature of Rogen gives the film a final, endearing punch that makes the value of his presence raise dramatically. Now, the acting is perhaps the best you’ll see on-screen all year and the direction doesn’t get in the way of the story to be told, but I can’t stress the significance of the screenplay by Reiser. From pain to gain, Reiser’s real life experience lends itself to an unflinching look at a disease that seemingly affects everyone in one way or another. No matter how harrowing things may seem, Reiser, and the actors that deliver his tale, give ample comedic moments of levity that provide a tissue for your tears.