Monday, October 3, 2011


Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the new “cancer comedy” 50/50, based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own battle with cancer and its effects on his relationships, and the actor is an ideal choice: he has built up audience goodwill with his roles in the last few years, so that we’re naturally inclined – beyond the usual interest afforded a protagonist – to want to see him be well, even as he struggles with his loved ones. Though the film’s title is taken directly from some internet research that Gordon-Levitt’s character Andy does on his chances with the rare form of spinal cancer he’s diagnosed with, it can be also be thought of the way in which this psychological burden might be shared with those close to him.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Andy’s girlfriend Rachael, who, through Andy’s subtle prompt of a drawer of her own at his place, is becoming a little more serious at the beginning of the story. Andy’s best friend Kyle is not sold on Rachael’s commitment, however, in their early dialogue together, during which the movie establishes that it will mix in the Judd Apatow style vulgarity that has become de rigeur in R-rated comedies. Kyle is played by Seth Rogen, who pretty much plays himself, again, but for real this time: he is Reiser’s friend and helped him during his ordeal and then encouraged him to craft his experiences into a script; he serves as a producer on the movie. Andy and Kyle work together at Seattle Public Radio, though this is only of small importance in their relationship. When Andy sees a doctor about the constant pain he’s been having in his lower back, the doctor almost dismissively breaks the news that Andy has neurofibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma. Here director Jonathan Levine begins to use some impressionistic shots to capture the change in Andy’s mindset, and throughout the film the cinematography and editing nicely reflect the matter-of-factness of some procedures Andy must take – in treatment, and with his friends and family – with the different psychological states he finds himself in. Anxious about his mom’s reaction, Andy is hesitant to tell her. Anjelica Huston is tremendous but subtle as Diane, who is already caring for Andy’s father (Serge Houde), inflicted with Alzheimer’s. She is justifiably worried about Andy, though he can’t bring himself to allow that level of attention. These relationships are set up before Andy meets Katherine, a young and inexperienced hospital therapist, and as played by Anna Kendrick, there is a humorous awkwardness and tentativeness to their scenes together, as they both navigate their sessions. Katherine is eager to counsel, and console, as Andy has his entire life changed.

There were two things that struck me the most about 50/50, beyond the winning performances (including Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as fellow chemo patients) and the solid structure. The most immediate is that it’s fair, and nuanced, with all of the characters and with the situation itself. Even though Andy is fastidious and kind, he’s not portrayed as a saint. His girlfriend has definite issues with dealing with his treatment, but we can see both why Andy cared for her and why he might need to move on, even when he’s the most in need of a girlfriend. Kyle takes advantage of the sympathy that comes Andy’s way as he drafts him to pick up women, but he’s also the most supportive and is hiding his struggle with the chance that his friend might not make it. 

As a byproduct or undercurrent to this balance among the characters, there is an uncertainty – will this get addressed, will that come out in the relationship, is she going to be more or less a part of his life? I was pleased to find that this of course fits with the story, as Andy’s not sure of his current situation and what the future might hold, if anything, but he still continues to live his life as he is – the cancer doesn’t necessarily transform him or the movie, paradoxically. 50/50 is a winning drama that uses a comedic template to draw the audience in, and it shows the same respect to the audience as it does its characters, in letting them experience the spectrum of reactions that such a personal story holds. 

[Published link: here]


  1. "[Joseph Gordon-Levitt] has built up audience goodwill with his roles in the last few years, so that we’re naturally inclined – beyond the usual interest afforded a protagonist – to want to see him be well, even as he struggles with his loved ones."

    Perhaps some of this has to do with how I lost that J G-L "goodwill" forever after "500 Days of Summer," but I had a lot of trouble sympathizing with his character. He has a pretty-much perfect life and getting cancer actually makes it better (by meeting Kendrick, and deeper emotionally connecting with his mom/friend; he also has no other external issues - he has good healthcare, a good job, a house - besides not being able to drive): why would I want to watch a movie about this??

    And mentioning the "true story" aspect just exacerbates: he got cancer and that led to him getting a movie deal. Great.

  2. Aww, you didn't like him in (500) Days? That's too bad.

    As for the rest: wow. I agree that the character is in his prime as the film begins, he just has "normal" issues, nothing big. But I thought part of what was effective was how the film portrayed the change -- it wasn't some weepy sick-fest, but it did show Andy's doubts, and the catalyst the diagnosis had in his relationships.

    And the real-life basis: Reiser was working with Rogen on the Ali G. show at the time he was diagnosed, they were already involved in entertainment. But, I would put it more like: "He got cancer, it went into remission, and that led to him making a movie. Great!"

    Then again, I'm just a good person and you're a monster. OPINIONS! INTERNET HYPERBOLE! ;)