50/50 – A toss up


There was likely a moment, and a table, at which sat writer Will Reiser and producers at Summit Entertainment, and someone had to say, “It’s about a guy whose girlfriend cheats on him, his father has Alzheimer’s, and he gets cancer.”  And at some point, someone else had to lean forward in a chair, maybe adjust the glasses, raise an eyebrow, and say, “I’m listening.”  And then Reiser may have said, “It’s a comedy.”  Then, about two years later, after 17 various film festival wins and nominations, they could have raised glasses of champagne, raised both eyebrows, three “best screenplay” awards, and said, “Holy crap, we did it!”  What they did is 50/50

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to do everything right.  From picking up other people’s trash to waiting for the traffic light to change, regardless of how non-existent the traffic is, he does what he is supposed to do.  He apologizes when late for work, as rare as it may be, and he keeps a very orderly home.  Unfortunately, life does not treat him the same way.  After experiencing pains in his back, he goes for an MRI that shows a rare form of cancer.  In his methodical way, he studies up on the internet.  Do you want to guess what his chance of survival is?


50/50 is not about Adam as it is about the people around Adam, what they do, what they don’t do, what they should or should not have done, while helping Adam, or helping themselves, deal with the situation.  Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend, tries to explain to Adam how difficult this is on her.  Diane (Anjelica Huston), Adam’s mother, initially makes it all about her, how she is affected by her son having cancer when she already has to deal with a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Kyle (Seth Rogen), Adam’s co-worker at a public radio station, wants to use the situation to bring Adam – and himself – as much happiness and sex as possible, while still possible.

On the medical/clinical side, Adam is meeting with Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a therapist who sheepishly admits that he is only about her third patient ever.  While she’s got all the theory memorized, she has not practiced long enough to know exactly what works or doesn’t work in the field.  Because she has not yet practiced long enough, and because Adam is maybe two years older than her, she is not yet able to regard him as a patient, a social security number, and instead sees Adam as a man hurting and in need.  That’s not a bad thing, but it comes with complications that I’m sure you can figure out without me saying so.


Adam starts chemotherapy and meets a few elderly gentlemen, Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer).  At half their age, 27-year old Adam is out of place but in good company.  They are the perfect guides to help keep him grounded while also recognizing what’s ahead of him.  They’re a blend of optimism but not naivety, and caution but not fear.  They know that when the chances are 50/50, and there are three people in a room, then at least one – maybe two – are not going to make it.  That doesn’t mean they’re going to just roll over and take it.  When one of them dies, and Adam asks “why,” the other answers, “What the fuck does it matter?  His heart stopped.”

Kyle throws a party, but why?  It’s not a going away part, or at least it shouldn’t be.  People are hesitant to talk to Adam because it’s like talking to someone on death row.  It seems like Kyle threw the party so he could get the women sad and emotional, then prey upon them.  After Rachael and Adam break up, Kyle takes Adam out to meet women in a bar.  There are some kinks to work out, but it eventually works, but is it Kyle trying to help Adam enjoy what might be his last months or is it Kyle trying to gain from Adam’s losing situation?  It is not easily answerable.  Seth Rogen is pretty much the same character you expect but toned down a little.  He is mainly responsible for scattered laughs.  Too many and you get complaints that you’re making fun of cancer.  Too few and you’re just making a male version of Beaches or Terms of Endearment.


50/50 is billed as a “dark comedy,” which is not easy to do.  A great example is the scene in which Adam’s doctor is attempting to tell him that he has cancer.  The techno-language-vernacular is so specific and mumbled that it all goes over Adam’s head, and he has to ask the doctor at least twice to repeat it until a few pieces fall together.  For Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) to so carefully direct that scene so well but with relatively little experience is fabulous and certainly justifies the nominations and wins ranging from the Golden Globes to the Writers Guild Award to a dozen film festival nods to boot.

As stated, 50/50 is not so much about Adam as it is about those around him, and there is a good reason for that.  When someone has cancer and faces death in such a way, they’re going to need help.  They’re going to need strong people to lift them up, physically and emotionally, and relaxed people to keep them calm when they want to freak out and break things.  How well a patient comes through it may very well depend on how well those support people do their jobs.  Regardless of how the statistics are added, you could say that all cancer patients’ chances are 50/50.  Either you live or you don’t.  Same with a movie – either you like it or you don’t.  I liked it.

Teacher gives it a B.

18 thoughts on “50/50 – A toss up

  1. I really liked this movie. I am a huge fan of Joseph Gordon Levitt (who would have thought that kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun?!) and I think he does well with a difficult role – a potentially dying cancer patient in his 20’s. I agree the movie has more to do with his relationships and what is going on around him. People do react strangely to cancer and i think it was captured quite well.

    I’ve never been much of a fan of Seth Rogan but i didn’t absolutely dislike him in this movie. At times, his character was difficult to like but there were glimpses of him being a good friend.

    I loved Angelica Houston in this movie as well as Anna Kendrick.

    • i love what you said there. that you didn’t absolutely dislike seth rogen’s character. i usually like him, but i had trouble here too. good eye. thanks for reading.

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