50/50 Review: Way Better Than Cancer

50/50 (15): On General Release Friday 25th November

“Cancer” and “comedy”. They’re not two words that immediately go together but 50/50 gets the balance between ribald humour and heartbreaking trauma just right.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young radio journalist who is diagnosed with a rare kind of back cancer and told that he only has a 50/50 chance of survival.  Helping him to get through it is his hard-partying loudmouth best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his neurotic mother (Anjelica Houston) and young, inexperienced therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick).

The performances are absolutely superb, particularly from Gordon-Levitt who plays a mild-mannered, gentle person trying to keep calm in the face of the devastating news.  There are several great scenes where his emotions bubble to the surface, made all the more touching because he’s been doing so well at keeping them hidden for so long.

There are early concerns that Seth Rogen’s brash, bolshie humour could overwhelm the emotional subtleties of 50/50 but thankfully, not only is he extremely funny but his usual over-the-top reactions feel justified in the light of Adam’s tragedy.  He’s simply trying to cope and humour is the only way he knows how, so he takes Adam partying; encourages him to use his disease to pick up girls and provides some “medicinal” marijuana.  A late poignant reveal underscores how much the crude jokes might be just a front.

However, while 50/50 rightly explores cancer’s effects on family and friends, there’s little objectivity or three-dimensionality when it comes to its female characters.  Bryce Dallas Howard gives a great performance as Rachael but her character is quickly vilified when she screws up and tries vainly later to put things right.  What she does is arguably unforgivable but 50/50 treats her with such scorn even when her circumstances are at least partially sympathetic.

Much better rounded is Anna Kendrick as Katie, a rookie therapist still finding her feet who has her own insecurities. The awkwardness of their first meeting is charming and her struggle with the inappropriateness of a later conversation with Adam when she gives him a lift home is a delight.

There’s also strong support from Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as two older cancer patients who Adam befriends but it’s the chemistry and banter between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen which is the beating heart of the film.  It’s because their relationship is so believable that the humour seems natural and not just a list of dry quips.

Director Jonathan Levine keeps a tight rein on the tone keeps it light and touching without it ever becoming preachy. It occasionally wavers (notably when Rogen starts to tug at his leash), but for the most part 50/50 is a moving but often hilarious comedy drama that tackles a very difficult subject head on and wins.