50/50 is a serious-minded comedy about cancer, and writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine's greatest accomplishment is that it starts out being a good movie in spite of that premise, and ends up being a great one because of it. That's a neat trick, if you can get away with it. It disarms you with its irreverence and candor; it distracts you with a romantic subplot that shouldn't work, but does. And then, at its conclusion, it reveals itself as a genuinely emotional heartbreaker, and it wrings you out. Resier and Levine are a couplea sneaky bastards.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen play (respectively) Adam and Kyle, longtime friends and co-workers. Adam is a straight-laced dude; he doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, and has a live-in artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who he's too nice to ask for sex from. And then he gets the big C. The reveal of the disease is one of the picture's strongest moments; it expertly captures the very specific way you stop listening to a doctor after they say a phrase like "Your cancer is..."
But his cancer is rare, especially in a 27-year-old. He has, he is told, about a 50% chance of survival, with chemotherapy treatments and the possibility of surgery. He immediately dreads telling his overprotective mother (Anjelica Houston), and he decides the best way into the conversation is to ask her, "Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?" Adam gives the girlfriend an out, but no decent person wants to actually take that out, so she sticks around as long as she can, even though she doesn't want to go to the hospital with him; hospitals freak her out. Kyle lands on two coping strategies, almost immediately: medicinal marijuana, and trying out cancer as a pick-up device.
Reiser's screenplay, written from his own experience, mostly focuses (wisely) on the small stuff, the logistics and day-to-day details of the disease. He goes to chemotherapy, and befriends two cancer patients who are, unsurprisingly, far older and wiser (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer flesh out the already impressive supporting cast). As part of the treatment, he sees a therapist, played by the always-delightful Anna Kendrick. She is 24 (it's a teaching hospital); he asks if she's some kind of Doogie Howser, and then has to explain that Howser is a teenaged doctor. "Does he work here?" she asks.
This is the kind of bright but vulnerable character that Kendrick does so well; watch the wonderful dodgy manner with which she answers his questions about how many previous patients she's had, or the careful way she handles a desperate telephone call that follows Gordon-Levitt's most powerfully raw moment. It should no longer come as a surprise that he's good in a film--he is always good, in everything (a statement that I shall preserve by never seeing G.I. Joe), but he plays every beat of his character's clear and well-defined arc with both precision and spontaneity. He and Rogen prove a good on-screen duo, sharing a tight conversational cadence and a sense of shared history. Rogen proves, unsurprisingly, to be the film's "comic relief," but he does so unapologetically, and the picture is better for it; when he informs a doctor that "You should start with that information," it punctures the tension beautifully.
Video & Audio:
The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded image is crisp, if expectedly clinical and thus occasionally cold--much of the picture takes place in hospitals, after all. But there's a nice warmth to the scenes at Adam's home (an amber-hued shot of his first night alone in bed is particularly evocative), and the video presentation is nicely cinematic overall. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is more active than one might expect for a dialogue-heavy comedy/drama, from the subtle directionality of the chirping birds outside the hospital to the full-on immersion of the big bar scenes and the sad movie rainstorm. Big moments--like the echoing and zoning out during Adam's diagnosis--are handled well, as are the many fine music cues.
The disc also includes a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track, plus English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The standout among the rather repetitious bonus features is, unsurprisingly, the audio commentary with co-star/co-producer Seth Rogen, co-producers Evan Goldberg and Ben Karlin, writer Will Reiser (aka "Raisin"), and director Jonathan Levine. We all know that these big group tracks can easily turn into a clusterfuck, but this one is entertaining and reasonably informative, particularly with their diversions into alternative titles and into their favorite Anjelica Huston movie, The Witches.
Five Deleted Scenes (6:17 total)are included, with optional commentary by director Levine. Nothing in them seemed particularly missing while watching the film, but they do tie up a couple of subplots that yes, now that you mention it, it's nice to have some closure on. And the last is more of an outtake than a deleted scene--and it's a good one.
"The Story of 50/50" (7:54) features Rogen, Reiser, and co-producer (and Rogen's writing partner) Evan Goldberg talking about Reiser's cancer and how it developed into the film. It's mostly information we can glean from the commentary, and the featurette itself is a fairly typical EPK item, but it features a three-way interview that's quite funny.
"Life Inspires Art" is a four-part featurette (9:15 total) that examines how incidents in their relationships became part of the script (again, a bit of repetition here). "Seek and Destroy" (2:21) goes behind the scenes of the painting-destruction sequence. "I think, hopefully, it will be emotionally impactful," says Rogen, "but that comes secondary to the fact that I enjoyed filming it."
Trailers to other Summit releases are also offered via the disc's BD-Live portal.
In mere description, 50/50 sounds like a movie-of-the-week, and in all fairness, it occasionally verges on that territory. But Levine (whose previous picture, The Wackness, was a bit of a crowd-splitter), mining the skills of his tremendous cast and Reisner's smart screenplay, and maximizing a top-notch soundtrack without merely relying on it, keeps it all aboveboard. It's not a showy movie; it's modest and personal, its events working towards small-scale climaxes. As a result, it is that rarest of creatures: an honest tearjerker, in which the emotions are earned rather than manipulated.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.