Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews 50/50

There are a lot of bankable movie pitches out there with low-risk box office potential: giant robots that fight to the death, or an adaptation of a popular young adult novel – but the filmmakers behind the dramedy 50/50 had their work cut out for them. A half-humorous/half-character drama story about a young guy who discovers he has cancer, 50/50 is certainly a challenging sell, even with a talented cast – and resulted in several pre-release name changes for the film, i.e. I’m With Cancer and Live With It.

The various stages of cancer treatment, more than any other affliction, will likely be familiar to moviegoers – and with that familiarity comes a tricky balance, considering many people in the audience will have close ties to someone who has battled the disease. Ultimately 50/50, and director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), have to find a meaningful middle ground between handling a very familiar subject matter with dignity and sensitivity while also delivering plenty of cathartic moments that help keep the story from reminding audiences too much of real life.

So… did the filmmakers succeed or does the challenging 50/50 subject matter result in an disjointed mishmash?

Fortunately, 50/50 is more the former rather than the latter. Solid performances and very “believable” character moments elevate the film above what could have simply been a typical raunchy comedy with a controversial premise. That said, the later moments in the story tend to offset the balance and stray away from the more grounded elements of the first two acts, i.e. there’s a lot of melodrama. 50/50 incorporates an ambitious set of events and, by the end, some work better than others – while a few are overtly ham-fisted and jammed into the story.

As mentioned, the 50/50 story follows “healthy” 27 year old, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who unexpectedly discovers the back pain he has been experiencing is an extremely rare form of cancer that’s threatening his life. As Adam embarks on a difficult and aggressive course of treatment, he attempts to make sense of his shattered life as well as maintain “normal” relationships with his self-absorbed girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), off-the-wall but reliable best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), and over-protective mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston). Anna Kendrick rounds out the cast as Dr. Katherine “Katie” McKay, Adam’s therapist – who, despite a lack of experience and awkward demeanor, attempts to help Adam open up about his feelings so that he can tackle his condition with open eyes.

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in '50/50'

The story was loosely based on screenwriter (and Rogen collaborator), Will Reiser’s experience with a similar form of cancer. However, while Reiser’s journey adds a lot of weight to the more meaningful and honest moments in the film, his familiarity can at times over-extend its reach – as a few of the intertwining story lines come across significantly less authentic. As a result, moment to moment, the scenes are believable and interesting to watch; but in some cases, the resulting fallout of the proceedings isn’t exactly earned.

It’s clear the 50/50 filmmakers were struggling with the movie’s balance – toeing the line of especially dark and painful character drama only to subsequently overcompensate by trying to lighten things up too much. While lighter moments are definitely appreciated (and mostly effective) there are times when certain scenes come across as forced, or at the very least, unearned – as well as counterintuitive to how a particular character might actually behave given the situation.

This imbalance is especially apparent in the last act of the film, where some of the most interesting (and heartbreaking) character interactions occur – as well as some of the most aggressive “story over substance” relationships are tied up. One scene in particular between Adam and his mother is especially profound and masterfully handled, delivering a powerful point about living in the face of possible death. Whereas the relationship between Adam and Katie is a little bit harder to rectify in the closing scenes of the production – since it’s never really established why the therapist becomes so connected to Adam. As a result, while the character is actually one of the sharper inclusions, she’s poorly served in the first two acts – with very little foundation for Kendrick to build from in order to believe Katie has any reason to really care about Adam outside of therapy.

Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kyle and Adam

That said, every member of the cast hits the mark in 50/50. Gordon-Levitt summons the same subtle (and disturbed) emotional complexity as his character Tom, in (500) Days of Summer. 50/50 would be nowhere without the balance that Gordon-Levitt is able to strike, transitioning from humored catharsis to evocative character drama- especially in one surprisingly heart-wrenching moment toward the end of the film. Rogen, who many moviegoers will no doubt expect to do his normal comedy schtick, finds an impressive groove (possibly because of his connection with Reiser) and brings unexpected reverence to the project – while still delivering some of the best, and raunchiest, lines in the film. Kendrick’s Katie is another in-over-her-head type (following an impressive turn in Up in the Air) who, in a cast full of characters who are all scrambling around trying to make sense of their role in Adam’s condition, grounds the proceedings with a bit of intentionally awkward stability.

Anyone expecting 50/50 to be another installment in Rogen’s string of raunchy (albeit heartfelt) character comedies (Knocked UpObserve and Report, Pineapple Express) will probably be overwhelmed by the heavy dramatic moments – as the film takes itself, and its subject matter, very seriously. However, moviegoers who are looking for a thoughtful and challenging story, grounded in real world character reactions, that also manages to offer some cathartic laughs, will very likely enjoy 50/50. Despite a few overt “Hollywood” moments, and some ham-fisted character interactions, 50/50 is a solid attempt at presenting a cancer  story on the big screen – antineoplastic drugs, pot brownies, and all.

If you’re still on the fence about 50/50, check out the trailer below:

[poll id=”191″]

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below:

50/50 is now in theaters.

Our Rating:


4 out of 5
(Excellent)