TIFF Review: 50/50

Jonathan Levin/e's 5050 isn’t a “cherish life” movie about coping with a terminal illness so much as it’s a “face death and get your act together” movie. Not to suggest that this is a grim film, but there’s a vital difference between, say, the trumped-up day-seizing of The Bucket List and this, a funny, moving, well-grounded take on a potentially traumatic experience.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t understand how he has managed to get cancer in his mid-twenties. He doesn’t drink, smoke, drive or even jaywalk. The worst thing he does is bite his nails, and yet here he is, forced to face his mortality at a fairly young age. Everyone says that they’ll be there for him – best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick) – but Adam swears that he’s fine, over and over again, though maybe more for himself than the sake of others.

Seldom do we actually see him breaking the news to friends and family, save for Mom, who promptly freaks out; director Levine (The Wackness) prefers to cut to the reactions and scales back the potential repetition of having Adam sit each significant other down one by one. Much of 50/50’s appeal comes from how well it works as a comedy of manners, as everyone tries to say the exact right thing in the exact right way while Adam responds from the intersection of denial and defensiveness. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is frequently sarcastic but generally understated, so that when his frustrations and fears finally do boil over in some of the film’s final scenes, the emotional blows land with a force both unexpected and well-earned.

Less surprising is Rogen’s role as the boisterous buddy prone to getting high and doling out pop culture references ad nauseum. Rogen, a co-producer on this, really was best friends with screenwriter Will Reiser as he coped with cancer, but it takes him a while to shed the usual schtick and find his footing as the boorish but loveable pal. We’ve similarly seen Kendrick play highly-strung individuals before in Rocket Science and Up in the Air, but she doesn’t often start from a place of warmth, and her delicate, determined application of sincere concern complements Gordon-Levitt’s quiet stubbornness nicely (a stubbornness also served well by both Michael Giacchino’s melancholy guitar-and-piano compositions and Vancouver locations suitably subbing for the aptly overcast Seattle).

When it becomes apparent that Rachael might not be fully up to caring for her boyfriend, Howard walks a fine line, just as she had in The Help, of taking an easily detestable character and suggesting enough doubt and hesitancy in abandoning a relationship that’s come to ask more of her than expected that she doesn’t feel like a full-on villain. Are we surprised that one love interest enters the picture as another departs? No. Are we surprised that the two other patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who befriend Adam during chemotherapy sessions are red shirts in waiting? Not really, but they add some priceless levity to the film with their drug-laced confections. Even having Adam’s father suffering from Alzheimer’s, a potential for eye-rolling if ever there was one, is a choice handled with care.

For all of the familiar plot points and potential pitfalls, Levine and Reiser walk a tonal tightrope throughout, with no one in the ensemble ever really hitting a false note. 50/50 is that rare beast, a respectable tearjerker that also happens to be a winning comedy of manners; while Katie finds it hard to touch Adam in just the right way, this film shouldn't have the same problem with touching its audience.

Grade: A-