Monday, 5 December 2011

Film Review: 50/50

'Cancer comedy' doesn't exactly sound like the most hilarious thing you'll ever see. Indeed, just how do you make a comedy about cancer? Such is the volatility surrounding such a premise that it's no wonder no one else has dared attempt such a thing. The answer then is that if you're going to do so, you had better bloody well hope you get it right. Fortunately 50/50 manages this in spades, aided undoubtedly by screenwriter Will Reiser, his own struggle with the disease upon which the film's events are based.

When responsible, risk-averse Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that has a survival rate of fifty-percent, those closest to him rally round to offer their support. Where his girlfriend Rachel (Howard) vows to stay by his side, Adam's estranged mother (Huston) struggles to come to terms with his illness while rambunctious friend Kyle (Rogen) focuses on getting him sympathy lays.

While the premise might at first sound alarming, if not 'offensive', making light of social taboos need not be cruelly motivated merely to obtain laughs out of serious issues. Certainly this is most definitely not the case here. Despite its bromantic inclination, 50/50 thankfully remains witty without ever forsaking its incredibly touching sentiments. Naturally there is a tricky tonal balance to obtain, and verily half the time you won't know whether you should be laughing or not. However, in order for it to strike such a poise it must remain upbeat in order to resonate with its audience. Consequently 50/50 perhaps might not be as daring as it first appears. Indeed it sonorously shies away in some instances, being just a little bit too careful in the sense that it seems torn between pandering to the viewer and trying to convey something insightful. However such criticism would be nitpicking given the difficulty of the subject material and the inevitability of offending at least someone's sensibilities.

But 50/50 is more than just a comedy. It is as much an exploration of Adam's struggle with cancer as it is an exposition on the effects such a diagnoses has on friends and family. This will evoke an emotional response from its audience, particularly when you realise that Adam doesn't have a plethora of people around to get him through. But it is those who are there which count, and this is most evident in the third act. Often an area where films are weakest, here the seriousness of Adam's condition is palpable, signalled by a shift down in gears from sitcom to drama. Such is the incredible tenderness with which the situation is handled that you'd be dumbfounded to come across anyone that was actually offended by this film.

This is helped along by its characters, most which have an inexpungible saccharine quality. Gordon-Levitt's softly spoken, self-effacing Adam oozes an unimpeachable pathos as we journey with him through the five stages of grief and his showdown with the disease. Along the way he meets a couple of elderly, pot-using cancer patients played veraciously by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, as well as a trainee psychologist Katherine (Kendrick) who is charmingly out of her depth given Adam is only her third ever patient. Admittedly the development of Adam and Katherine's relationship may seem a little 'cutout', but it is still handled with a geniality that makes this forgivable. You also might be hard pressed to fathom the ignominious behaviour of Adam's girlfriend, indeed hoping that if 50/50 is based on Reiser's own experience that she's entirely fictional. Likewise, Adam's nagging mother may seem a little disingenuous at first but she gives a capacious emotional pay-off by the end. While Rogen shows nothing new from his previous outings as an irrepressible hairy slob, he is nonetheless likeable and provides the film with its main comic impetus. What separates Rogen's familiar nuances here however is the context as he attempts to make sense of the fact that his best mate might die. There's more to Kyle than just partying and getting laid, a depth allured to that gives this otherwise recognisable character a genuine redeeming quality.

50/50 is one of the most touching films I've seen all year, boundlessly emotional and with plenty of heart. It works both as a classic Rogen-Apatow comedy as well as a sombre tale of one man's battle with cancer. Just how funny can you get without trivialising something as serious as cancer I hear you ask? Perhaps Will Reiser is one of the few who might know, seemingly taken by the old adage that 'laughter is the best medicine'. While there is mirth and tears in equal measure, the success rate in its precarious balance between humour and inquisition of such a pernicious illness is greater than 50/50.