Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
I’ll be surprised if there’s a better song cue than the one that ends “50/50,” a mournful, buoyant twang that surely tested the chords of Pearl Jam’s guitarist Mike McCready when he first played “Yellow Ledbetter” for the first time. A song that was never released on any of the band’s official albums besides a collection of B-sides, it’s become so popular in the years since that it traditionally is performed as a show closer and yet in the thousands of times I’ve heard the song, it’s never spoken so precisely to me as it did when the screen turned to black.
It is the final note of Jonathan Levine’s third feature, but like nearly all of the others hit in “50/50,” it is the right one, which is no small achievement when the film balances out the story of a young man’s battle with spinal cancer with the levity expected from a script written by Will Reiser, a former producer on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” who suffered from the same ailment.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays his onscreen surrogate Adam, a 27-year-old public radio sound engineer in Seattle whose sober, vegan existence hasn’t prevented him from getting nightsweats and unlike so many men his age, they aren’t because his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) coos in the morning, “Honey, we’re getting so domestic.”
When Adam gets the news he’s contracted the disease, his reaction is muted disillusionment while those closest to him freak out in different ways — wanting to get closer to him like his mother (Anjelica Huston), wanting to get further away like his girlfriend or simply wanting to use the disease to get girls like his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) – the pressure of how to act around all of them outweighing the intensity of his back pains. With an adorable Anna Kendrick as his therapist Katie and the kindly yet cantankerous Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as his chemo compatriots, it’s no wonder that Adam is able to find comfort elsewhere, though “50/50” is well-rounded enough to not let him escape the obligation of settling scores with those closest to him.
However, “50/50” is a deeper film than that broad description might suggest, smoothly functioning as a crowdpleaser that deals honestly with sensitive subject matter, but digging out most of its humor and insight from how the cancer challenges the masculinity of both Adam and his pal Kyle. Rogen brings his typical brusqueness to Kyle, whose idea of getting his buddy well is to take him out to clubs and seduce women with Adam’s bald head, but clearly it masks his fear of losing his friend. Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, already neutered by the life he’s been told to live, is emboldened to be a little more reckless in his actions as well as his words, deepening his friendship with Kyle and others such as Katie who appreciate his true self.
The light crudity that’s a byproduct of this newfound machismo offsets any inclination the film has towards becoming too soft, something that couldn’t help me wonder what would’ve happened with the film’s initial incarnation where Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give”) and James McAvoy were onboard, both gifted at handling grace notes, but perhaps unsuited for the injection of testosterone that may be “50/50”’s best feature. Then again, another less fortunate byproduct is that Holofcener would’ve never painted Adam’s girlfriend Rachel as a one-dimensional shrew when she’s unable to admit she’s unprepared to deal with his illness and likely would’ve reworked Kendrick’s therapist so she wasn’t so obvious a candidate to pick up the pieces. Both Howard and Kendrick are excellent in the film, but their parts, particularly in Howard’s case, aren’t nearly as well-written as the men.
Still, Levine was an inspired choice to direct “50/50,” operating with the same generous spirit he brought to his last film “The Wackness” while pacing it with the precision of a train conductor. Scenes spill over from one to another, the end of one scene setting up the punchline for the next without sacrificing the emotions at the core or its realism — it’s indicative of the film as a whole that when Adam and Kyle go to a club, the patrons don’t look like they came directly from a Hollywood casting department, but they look as they were people that would actually be hanging around past midnight.
“50/50” doesn’t overstay its welcome and in fact, nearly all of its characters are rich enough to deserve films of their own. But since we have to settle for only one, it’s good “50/50” is the kind that stays with you, perhaps a generation from now being namechecked for comfort just as "Terms of Endearment" is in this film.