50/50: Toronto Film Review

This comedy about cancer, where the Big C stands more for comedy than the disease, is nonetheless both touching and funny by the end.

This cancer comedy, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick, was written by Will Reiser, who draws on his personal battle with a rare form of that disease.

One no longer gasps at the audacity of a movie trying to get laughs about cancer or life-threatening illnesses. Such movies have become a virtual subgenre among European filmmakers, and Showtime has found ratings and awards season success with The Big C, its dark comedy about a woman diagnosed with cancer.There can, of course, be missteps, as recent as Gun Van Sant’s treacly tale Restless in Cannes or, for those with strong memories or even stronger DVD collections, as far back as 1978’s The End, starring and directed by Burt Reynolds. (The terminal illness in the latter case was never mentioned, if memory serves.)

Into this subgenre boldly steps 50/50, a cancer comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick and written by Will Reiser, who draws on his personal battle with a rare form of that disease. His success rate in the delicate balance between comedy and the profound devastation of such an illness is much greater than 50/50, but the film is not without its tonal lapses.

The guess here is that when the Jonathan Levine-directed film opens domestically Sept. 30, following its Toronto debut, mainstream audiences are now sufficiently conditioned for a comedy about a disturbing illness -- just so long as that movie sticks to the sunny side of the street. Which 50/50 does with great care.

Even during the movie’s opening credits, Michael Giacchino’s chirpy music assures the audience that everything is going to be just fine. Then the film’s handful of characters get introduced as you would in any situation comedy -- the easy banter, the instant recognition of types and the readily identified girlfriend-problem its hero-victim already suffers.

The question 50/50 raises is just how far into sitcom territory can you venture with such material without trivializing the terrifying cancer experience? Reiser has it all over any other filmmaker who can only guess at what that experience is like. And maybe things did happen this way to Reiser, who as a comedy professional took the Norman Cousins approach of laughing illness into submission.

But this comedy professional has processed his experience through a purely formulaic screenplay. Not a bad one, mind you, and certainly not one without a goodly number of laughs. But you see nearly every story development coming a mile away.

As soon as Gordon-Levitt’s Adam get his diagnosis, the story breaks off into sitcom zones: Adam’s home where irrepressible, best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen, doing double duty as a producer), drops by at all hours to bring happy-slob good cheer and also where distressed girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is game to take care of her man for all of about five minutes; the clinic where Adam does his chemo with a pair of personable, level-headed older patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer); and the intimate therapist’s office where a flirtation develops between Adam and his highly inexperienced illness counselor, Katherine (Kendrick).

Reiser has written his characters with an indelible sweetness and vulnerability, which allows the cast to deliver performances with some depth. So a situation such as Kyle insisting that Adam and he should cruise girls at a bar looking for sympathy lays -- Cruisin’ with the Big C as it were -- comes off as quite funny as does Adam’s first chemo session where he ingests weed-laced sweets created by a fellow patient’s wife and floats out of the hospital afterwards.

Gordon-Levitt is such a fine actor that, with what amounts to a completely reactive character, he still scores big with easy-to-identify-with emotions that pitch him increasingly into a panic mode as the illness won’t loosen its grip.

It’s worrying that Kendrick’s role here is so close to her Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air as a novice professional who wrongly thinks she has all the right answers. But such is her facility with emotional transitions that she makes a success of a role that may have been written with perhaps a little too much condescension.

Even worse in that department, however, is Howard’s girlfriend, who wears her insincerity on her sleeve. Following The Help, Howard is in danger of turning into Hollywood’s favorite beautiful villain.

Rogen stretches no new acting muscles here, but he does, as intended, provide a humorous counterbalance to the horrific (though mostly off camera) rigors of Adam’s cancer treatment.

Anjelica Huston starts off as a typical overbearing, worried mother but gradually establishes her own beachhead in the story’s emotions as she copes with, to paraphrase Adam’s therapist, a husband she can’t talk to and a son who won’t return her calls.

Strangely, the movie achieves its greatest success in its third act, the place where most movies collapse. Perhaps because the seriousness of Adam’s condition is more apparent by then, it’s able to better convey the dark comedy promised earlier. The emotional balance is more stable and everything feels more real and less … well, sitcom-ish.

Tech credits are fine with Terry Stacey’s cinematography doing justice to Canadian locations masquerading as Seattle and Annie Spitz’s production design locating the scary battle for survival in an authentic but nonetheless visually pleasing environment.