“50/50” might be the math behind Adam’s chance of surviving a rare form of cancer, but don’t be fooled by ads making it look like “50/50” is equal parts comedy and drama. While there are certainly hilarious moments, “50/50” is a drama, a cancer drama nonetheless, and most viewers without a black hole where their heart should be will be teary-eyed at least once during the film.
A few years ago, some movie bloggers compared Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Shia LeBeouf, stating that they were interchangeable actors, never rising beyond their source material. That might have been true when Gordon-Levitt’s only fame stemmed from a “fine for what it is” role for five years on NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” and LeBeouf’s stardom focused on his four years starring in Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens.” But now, with an Oscar-worthy turn in “50/50” after recent success in “Inception” and “500 Days of Summer”, there is no longer any equivalency. Gordon-Levitt is a solid actor, one who will be around for awhile, hopefully taking on stronger, character-driven roles like his real-world friend Leonardo DiCaprio. Starring in the next Batman movie won’t hurt either. LeBeouf, on the other hand, will hopefully fade into obscurity a la Megan Fox and the next time we’ll see him will be on a “Where are they now?” TV special.
But what makes Gordon-Levitt’s performance in “50/50” Oscar-worthy? The fact that “50/50” can make you laugh one second, cry another, and never feel like the movie is manipulating you into broad sentimentality. In fact, the film’s best moments are its most dramatic. Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a radio producer whose life is turned upside down when he is diagnosed with cancer at age 27. Based upon the true story of Will Reiser (who was writing for Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” when diagnosed), Gordon-Levitt could have made the part pure drama, where you pity Adam’s medical struggles and get the film’s laughs solely from Seth Rogen. Or he could have played the role with a pot-head apathy, just trying to get by in the face of cancer. Instead, he deftly navigates both approaches. Few young actors would give such a nuanced performance that combines anger, hatred, apathy, and love, especially when having to spend much of his screen time next to Seth Rogen, who is hamming it up as if he’s in a different Judd Apatow comedy that shared the Hollywood set with this cancer drama.
Does that mean Seth Rogen is bad? Absolutely not. As Kyle, Adam’s best and only friend, Seth Rogen brings necessary comedy to the movie to even out the dark patches, but also gives one of the most cringe-worthy moments as he individually puts an end to Adam’s relationship. He does it for a good reason, but it’s done with such selfishness that one wonders if there’s a real person the character is based upon and whether he enjoys being portrayed as a pot-smoking, sex-addicted selfish buffoon. (Rogen knew the true character, so maybe he’s playing himself?) Rogen brings some laughs (most of which are in the trailer) but doesn’t offer much more than in any other Seth Rogen role. Jonah Hill showed a considerably wider acting range in last year’s “Cyrus.”
On the other hand, Anjelica Huston (yes, she’s still alive) commands the screen in her small part as Adam’s mother. Lately just a cameo actress in Wes Anderson films and horrible comedies, Huston brings humor to “I’m moving in” — a line that could have been very dramatic. Replacing Rogen’s lesser scenes with a bit more family backstory on how Adam’s mother is dealing with a child dying of cancer and a husband lost to Alzheimer’s would have given the film additional depth, but would also have needed its own comedic moments to maintain its balance.
All in all, “50/50” is a thoughtful and funny film that reminds viewers that one can face cancer with fear, with laughter, or with a little of both.