Late November seems like a terrible time to launch a movie about cancer. With everybody making themselves miserable about the nights drawing in, cold weather and the stresses of Christmas, only the most strong willed and/or masochistic are going to be eagerly queueing up to see a movie about struggling with a life-threatening illness.
Although, to be fair, for much of its running time, 50/50 couldn’t be much further away from the territory of Terms of Endearment or Beaches if it tried. They may share an inevitable theme of triumphing over adversity in one form of another (50/50 particularly so, it being based on the real-life experiences of writer Will Reiser), and indeed, the former even gets a name-check (along with a run down list of film stars who had cancer, it’s both very funny, and an accurate portrayal of how we use movies to make sense of our everyday lives), but where those classic weepies were about women discovering their feelings and forming close bonds as a result, 50/50 is definitely aimed at the guys, and so most of its emotional bonding has to be covered up with awkwardness, good-natured but foul-mouthed ribbing and a faint whiff of misogyny.
Taking the role of Reiser’s fictionalised counterpart is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, arguably one of the most dependable young actors in Hollywood, and he’s as solid and dependable as ever here, although, surprisingly he doesn’t get much of a chance to shine. Instead, rather oddly considering the character’s real-life basis, he’s almost something of a cipher, and his tendency to go for inactivity and self-pity, don’t make him particularly appealing.
Better company are Anjelica Huston as his mother and Anna Kendrick as his therapist. While neither are that fleshed out – Huston being the usual well-meaning but demanding mother, Kendrick essentially a ‘manic-pixie-dream-girl’ who managed to get a proper job – both get a fair few well observed moments (in particular the scene where Huston finds out about her son’s illness manages to be heartbreaking and amusing at the same time, thanks to both some sharp scripting and an excellent performance).
But, the film’s not really about them, as hinted at by the poster, and the production credits (and the fact that he worked with Reiser as a writer on Da Ali G Show), 50/50 is very much a Seth Rogen film, with all the positives and negatives that entails. His presence isn’t unwelcome, but it is a bit like letting a bull loose in a china shop, or at least an excitable (or to be more accurate, very stoned) puppy. Rogen is, as ever, essentially playing himself and, while he may leaven some of the film’s darker moments, 50/50 asks a lot of its audience to accept such a broad character. Specifically he does some really quite despicable things, and yet is expected to be excused by the audience for him being a ‘guy’, whereas, Bryce Dallas Howard, as Levitt’s girlfriend, is outrightly vilified and given no opportunity to redeem or even explain herself. It’s both a shame, as it essentially cripples what could have been an intelligent, sensitive film, and also makes you wonder what exactly Howard’s done to piss off Hollywood, having only just played an irredeemable cow in The Help.
It probably wouldn’t matter what time of year 50/50 was released as it would still struggle a bit to find an audience – it’s a bit too touchy feely for the guys, and far too misogynistic for the girls (at one point Levitt’s dating history is described as being a bunch of ‘needy bitches’), and, to make matters worse, the pacing’s all over the place; practically racing through the set-up and the early stages of the illness, while lingering on a climactic operation for what seems like an eternity. That’s not to say that it’s not worthy of your time though, as it manages to be heartfelt and fairly unique take on the relatively unadventurous ‘cancer movie’ sub-genre. And, if you can manage to look past some wild misjudgements of tone, it’s also very funny.