Review: Cast, Script make "50/50" a Cancer Comedy That Beats the Odds

It’s always nice to watch an actor become a household name, a Movie Star, in front of your very eyes.
At one point, I thought that actor would be Seth Rogen. Sure enough, I was  right. However, sometimes, there are actors that overstay their welcome just a skosh too quickly.
Over six years ago, I remember watching Seth Rogen steal the show in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and thinking…this guy’s gonna be huge.
Sure enough, two years later, he hit the big-time, starring in 2005’s “Knocked- Up,” becoming the Comedic Actor Du Jour, starring in almost every Judd Apatow-produced/-directed comedy.
His profane, dick joke-prone lumbering, ne’er-do-well, stoner persona was synonymous with big laughs…and big money.
That is, until the big guy decided he could be an Action Hero. I’m sorry, bud, but I hate to break it to you: Chubby, hairy, Jewish guys don’t make good action heroes.
Yes, I know: My first column for TCJewFolk was about the Jewish Empire Striking Back. I was wrong! We suck at action scenes (unless you count James Franco cutting his own arm off in “127 Hours,” but still…that’s more like…self-mutilation than action!)
Besides, I wrote that column during a weird time in my life. So, sue me.
Anyhoo, the point is that Rogen’s style is best taken in smaller doses. He’s the class clown, he’s the best friend.
In the case of the recent, Jonathan Levine-directed (“The Wackness”) comedy, “50/50,” not only does he shine as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best friend, he’s actually playing a fictional version of himself. In real-life, he was screenwriter Will Reiser’s actual best friend!
And while it would certainly seem insensitive to say that Reiser was lucky to have gone through the experience—and it would be—he certainly was lucky enough to have lived through it, and written such an emotional, startlingly-funny, honest look at The Big C, as my Aunt Paula once called it, in a poem she wrote for my grandmother, who did succumb to the horrific, seemingly random disease.
He’s also lucky to have an actor as sincerely talented actor as Gordon-Levitt playing him or, at least, a fictionalized version of himself, Adam. In what could have been a Disease-of-the-Week-ish, arm-flailing Performance (notice the capital P, por favor), the young, brilliant actor manages to give an Oscar-worthy performance by just being—wait for it!—a nice, normal mensch.
I spoke about Rogen being a leading man. Well, so be it. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. I don’t know. But I’ve been waiting for Gordon-Levitt to have his well-deserved day in the sun, become a bon afide Movie Star!
And in this film, the gifted actor has finally gotten his opportunity! Yes!!
If you’ve ever watched anything he’s been in, from TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun” and his brave, harrowing performance in Gregg Araki’s stunning 2004 “Mysterious Skin,” in which he played a psychologically-damaged street hustler, to his sensitive, love-struck greeting card-writer in “(500) Days of Summer,” as well as his more intense, physical roles in 2007’s crime caper “The Lookout” and yes, last years mind-blowing “Inception” (who could forget that gravity-free hotel action scene?! The well-tailored dude sold it!), you already know he’s one of the best actors of his generation.
This brings me back to Rogen and Gordon-Levitt’s latest film, which just proves how talented both actors are at comedy. It also proves what a comic force of nature Rogen can be, when he’s relegated to supporting status.
Make no mistake: this is Gordon-Levitt’s movie, but the two actors absolutely perfectly against one another. You truly believe these two are friends, and the ups and downs of their relationship are pitch-perfect.
But wait! This isn’t just a Buddy/Stoner comedy. It’s also a rom-com.
And what a romance it is!
I’ll admit it: I’ve been a little smitten with Anna Kendrick, ever since she played George Clooney’s neurotic, high-strung protégé, Natalie Keener, in the 2009 dramedy, “Up In the Air” (for which she score an Oscar nom for Supporting Actress).
Once again, she plays a nervous, tightly-wound character; this time, as the inexperienced psychologist Kate McCay. The chemistry that grows between the two actors is truly something to behold. What begins as awkward doctor/patient relationship, ever-so-slowly melts away to tenderness.
The whole film abounds with small, yet terrific performances: Anjelica Houston is simply wonderful as a completely unhinged mother who’s used to having things her way, but pushed away by her ailing son; as is Bryce Dallas Howard, who did an amazing job making me hate her, as Adam’s two-timing girlfriend—and that’s no easy feat for the latter actress. In addition, the always-invaluable Philip Baker Hall (bless the man—I’ve been a fan of his since his small role as the IRS tax-man in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 “Say Anything…”) and Matt Frewer make strong impressions as fellow cancer patients.
Having experienced a cancer-scare myself, albeit a brief one, a few years ago, the movie does a good job of examining the anxiety that comes upon even hearing that dreaded C-word after a routine exam, much less being afflicted with it. Though, never truly experiencing the disease myself, I can’t say for sure if the movie does the disease justice.
Truth be told, there are a few too many weed jokes for my blood; though, to be fair, most of them are pretty damned hilarious, providing enough levity, especially during some pretty heavy, emotional scenes, that they earn their place in the film.
By the film’s climax—a risky operational procedure—the film has truly taken its hold over you, and, for better or worse, you feel as though you’ve gone through the emotional journey/roller-coaster the likable protagonist has experienced.
As a viewer, I was completely overcome with emotion. And yes, my cup runneth over (the other cup…pervs!) and I cried—sobbed!!—like a baby.
Call the film manipulative. Hell, you could even call it melodramatic.
For me? There’s just no 50/50 about it: This is 100% terrific filmmaking.