Laughter is the Best Medicine

50/50 ★★★★
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Jonathan Levine, Writ. Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston, Bryce Dallas Howard, Philip Baker Hall.
A few years ago, producer/writer Will Reiser was diagnosed with cancer at the young age of twenty-something. The odds that Reiser’s doctor gave were slim, but he beat them. Now, with the help of pal Seth Rogen, he subsequently channelled his experience into an autobiographical film. The diagnosis: Reiser’s film, 50/50, proves the age-old adage that laughter is the best medicine.

Standing in for Reiser is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Renamed Adam Lerner and re-cast in the role of a radio producer, the patient of 50/50 is not so autobiographical, however, to void the film of any suspense. Adam is a most conscientious young man: he neither drinks nor smokes, nor does he take the risk of driving a car. He even recycles so as not to pollute his environment. Adam is therefore dumbstruck when he visits the doctor and learns that he is suffering from schwannoma neurofibrosarcomas (say that three times fast), a rare form of spinal cancer. As one of Adam’s fellow cancer patients says, “the more syllables, the worse it is.” The diagnosis isn’t a good one, for the doctor says that odds of survival are an even fifty/fifty.
It’s not a completely dire prognosis, either, because Adam has his friends and family to fall back on as he fights to beat the cancer. His girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), selflessly agrees to nurse him throughout his treatment; however, her charity wanes quickly, which leaves Adam with only a newly adopted greyhound. It’s a retired race dog that looks like it might keel over before Adam does. Picking up Rachael’s slack is Adam’s best friend and co-worker, Kyle (Rogen). Kyle does his best to raise Adam’s spirits, using a variety of lewd jokes, medicinal marijuana, and cheesy cancer-related techniques of seduction. Finally, Adam gets support from his new therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is freshly into her doctorate, but offers Adam some comfort despite her inexperience.
As Adam undergoes chemotherapy and various levels of anger and acceptance, 50/50 deftly glides through different stages of humour and tone. Reiser’s script initially deals with Adam’s situation through ribald laughs and ballsy pop-culture jokes – apparently, it is not ‘too soon’ to mix cancer jokes with Patrick Swayze! As Adam’s outlook on his condition declines, however, the film nimbly transitions into a more temperate and perceptive essay on life and death. Director Jonathan Levine handles the material quite well: after his strong feature debut of The Wackness, he forgoes the film-school flair that served the earlier film so well, and he instead treats Adam’s story with a mature clear-headedness. 50/50 strikes a fine balance, though, and injects some bawdy humour, which saves the film from seeming either too heavy or simply uneven.
Much of the success of the dual-edge of 50/50, however, should be attributed to its two stars. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an excellent performance as Adam, mixing some of the cool, hipster remnants of (500) Days of Summer with an understated wrestling of vulnerability and perseverance. Seth Rogen manages the difficult act of being both boisterously arrogant and mannishly sweet: it’s a nice companion piece to his work in Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz. Not to be outmatched by the Gordon-Levitt/Rogen bromance, Anna Kendrick is sweet and awkward as Katherine, while Bryce Dallas-Howard is delightfully bitchy as Rachael. Capping off the fine ensemble is Anjelica Huston as Adam’s mother, Diane. Huston earns some big laughs through Diane’s smothering antics, but it’s her heartfelt subtlety in the final act that is most memorable as she skilfully transitions the film into a full-fledged tearjerker.
Likely to mix tears with laughter, 50/50 is an unabashed and uncontrived celebration of life. Beautifully prescribed by its script, direction, and performances, 50/50 shows that an inspirational underdog story need not occur in a sports arena to be a genuine crowd-pleaser. Odds are you’ll have a great night at the movies with this one, for 50/50 is easily one of the best comedies of the year.

50/50 opens in theatres September 30th.