Laughter is Half the Medicine

50/50 - Directed by Jonathan Levine
50/50 - Directed by Jonathan Levine

“50/50” is about relationships. When confronted with our own mortality, or that of our loved ones, we are forced to dig and find out what kind of people we are. “50/50” freshens up this familiar territory. It’s a funny and engaging movie written by young screenwriter Will Reiser, based on his own experience with spinal cancer.

Everything is very light at the start with banter and a catchy pop score – all the elements of a feel-good comedy. Then the diagnosis. The movie’s clever trick is to proceed with the lighthearted comedy template, but include moments of sad realization and sincerity throughout.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Alan (Philip Baker Hal) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), two fellow cancer patients who promptly offer their new friend a marijuana-laced macaroon, courtesy of Mitch’s wife. Adam first contends that he does not “do” marijuana but finally concedes. While wandering the corridors of the hospital, giggling to himself (extremely stoned), Adam soaks up the reality of sickness and runs the gamut of emotion in a matter of seconds. It’s a wonderful moment.

Anjelica Huston provides some of her finest acting and brings dignity and years of experience to her role as Diane, Adam’s mother. Their exchanges are straightforward and heartfelt, providing some of the more tender moments.

Kyle (Seth Rogen), Adam’s best friend, is blithe and not overplayed. Providing sincere comic relief, he drives the humor of the film forward.

There are a few flaws: Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a contrived character whose arc is ridiculous. She exists simply to set up an admittedly satisfying payoff. Anna Kendrick as Adam’s therapist, Katherine, is frustrating mostly due to her cadence, but is still tolerable (perhaps even likable.) Lastly, if you’re not charmed by around the 50-minute mark, the ending will seem cloying.

“50/50” treats its subject matter with the right amount of reverence while still managing to find humor in tragedy. A particularly poignant moment in the film is a short and simple exchange of loving words between Mitch and his wife. It is brief and honest reflecting a turning point in Adam’s attitude toward his cancer and the people in his life that support him.

Aside from a few plot contrivances, “50/50” succeeds. It is sad, funny and life-affirming.

NOTE (or WARNING): Tracks from The Walkmen and Liars provide the score for some important scenes in the movie. Hipsters rejoice/beware.

3 stars