On an episode of Sons of Anarchy, a gang member calls the police chief who is suffering from cancer: “Chemo-sabe.” In the film Funny People, Norm Macdonald congratulates Adam Sandler’s character on beating cancer but says: “You got cured of AIDS. Hey, let me get you a cocktail. Not an AIDS cocktail, a regular one.”
Cancer is now funny. Well, with an estimated 75,000 cancer-related deaths occurring in Canada this year, it would have to be for people to deal with it.
Directed by Jonathan Levine, 50/50 is billed as a so-called “cancer comedy,” and if that is a new genre, this film is a worthwhile addition to the lot. Will Reiser, who was an associate producer of Da Ali G Show, wrote the script based on his own experiences battling cancer and the absurdities of his situation.
The movie begins with 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) visiting the doctor for a sore back. Adam chews his nails, loves his self-absorbed girlfriend and doesn’t have a driver’s license because, as he says, car accidents are the fifth leading cause of death. His reaction to learning that he has neurofibrosarcoma, a rare form of cancer with a 50/50 survival rate, is: “That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I recycle.”
What follows is not a meditation on mortality or a re-evaluation of Adam’s life. It’s mostly about Adam being weirded out and/or touched by how others deal with his illness. This roots audiences in the moment and provides the perfect balance of heart-rending and knee-slapping.
The funny stuff comes from Adam’s vulgar best buddy, Kyle (Seth Rogen who two years ago played Sandler’s best friend in Funny People). Contrary to the popular saying, Kyle thinks random sex, and not laughter, is the best medicine; so he uses Adam’s diagnosis to get them girls. (“No one wants to f–k me, I look like Voldemort,” Adam retorts.) Rogen is actually playing a version of himself — Rogen once used Reiser’s illness to skip the line and get them free admission to Batman Begins — which also gives the story its ring of truth.
In the same way that Rogen is the consummate goofy, obnoxious man-boy, Gordon-Levitt is the relatable, vulnerable nice-guy. As he was in (500) Days of Summer, he finds himself again afflicted by an uncommitted but beautiful girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) who can barely be faithful, let alone punctual enough to pick him up from chemotherapy.
As Adam’s condition worsens, his supporting cast gets better. As Katherine, Adam’s novice therapist and new love interest, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) excels in another role where she plays a young anxious but earnest achiever. (Adam is 24-year-old Katherine’s third patient.) Angelica Huston does the most with a small role, playing Adam’s fretting mother, and Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall are memorable as Adam’s old chemo-buddies.
The movie oscillates smoothly between funny scenes (such as a mostly-improvised scene where Adam shaves his head using Kyle’s electric, er, body trimmer) and touching moments (such as when Adam calls out for his mother in the hospital). Rest-assured a film about cancer can be fun without being offensive and sweet without being schmaltzy. The “C” word in this case, is either comedy or compassion.
This review originally appeared in the National Post on Sept. 30, 2011.