September 30, 2011


More articles by »
Written by: Mitch Salem
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


50/50:  Worth A Ticket –  A Genuinely Feel-Good Cancer Comedy

With The Big C renewed for its third season on Showtime, the concept of a comedy getting laughs from the experiences of a cancer patient is no longer especially shocking, which means that the new 50/50 has to be judged on its comedy-drama merits, rather than its daring.  Happily, the movie is quite good–better, in fact, than Big C–and stands up just fine to the scrutiny.

As is widely known by now, 50/50 is based on the real-life experiences of its screenwriter, comic Will Reiser. Transformed into the fictionalized Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a writer for radio, he’s diagnosed at the age of 27 with a rare cancer that gives him a 50% chance of survival.  (It shouldn’t require a spoiler alert to read any of his own publicity interviews for the movie and discover that Reiser is, in fact, very much alive.)  In real life, one of the close friends who supported Reiser was Seth Rogen, and he’s been fictionalized here too, playing a version of himself as Adam’s pal Kyle, who assures Adam his cancer will make him catnip to the ladies.  (Rogen is also one of the film’s producers.)  
The material could easily have been mawkish and silly, but 50/50 finds just the right tone.  Unlike a fantasy like Restless, 50/50 doesn’t shy away from the physical effects of illness and chemotherapy; it feels honest, and its blackly comic laughs are fully earned.  Gordon-Levitt, who’s been tapdancing around the edges of stardom for the last few years, deserves to make the leap with this one–he perfectly captures he tidal wave of emotions that Adam goes through in the course of his illness, dealing with indifferent doctors, a family (including Anjelica Huston as his mom) that tries too hard to be compassionate, a girlfriend who finds the situation pushing against her limits (Bryce Dallas Howard, excellent in the small role), and his own sheer terror.  Rogen manages to be hilarious without overdoing his comedy-relief status, and he comes across as a genuinely good friend to have.  The other leading role, Adam’s inexperienced therapist-in-training, may seem too gimmicky at first, but luckily for everyone the wonderful Anna Kendrick (from Up In the Air) has the part, and she’s splendidly clumsy and then increasingly vulnerable. 
50/50 also marks a strong step forward for director Jonathan Levine.  His first picture All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was a fairly routine slasher picture, and he followed it with the hit-and-miss The Wackness.  In 50/50, he shows a sure hand for very difficult material, navigating the tonal shifts between gallows comedy and serious drama with ease, and guiding the cast beautifully past the many potential potholes.  The modestly budgeted movie isn’t a visual feast, but it’s handsomely shot by Terry Stacey (his credits include Adventureland and In Her Shoes), and has a fine score by Michael Giacchino.
50/50 is entertaining without being too slick, and truthful without being dreary.  The odds against it working were considerably higher than its title, and the very talented filmmakers have survived to pull their challenging project off.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."