“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” Dolly Parton’s character says in Steel Magnolias. Surely she would have loved 50/50, a film about cancer that aims for that sweet spot. At age 27, screenwriter Will Reiser contracted a nasty, multisyllabic form of cancer on his back, and with this film, he tells a personal story that looks a lot like a movie, specifically Terms Of Endearment. (Though it’s much more profane.) Turning an agonizing experience into a viable Hollywood entertainment involves a little contortion, and at times, 50/50 seems too buffed-out and commercially minded to read as real. But it achieves the laughter-through-tears effect anyway, thanks to the lightness and wit of Reiser’s script; strong, committed performances; and some real insight into the difficulties of being supportive—or, on the other end accepting that support.
Ideally cast as Reiser’s stand-in, Joseph Gordon-Levitt digs into a character role that also gives him a chance to show off the comedic chops he developed during his years on 3rd Rock From The Sun. After early scenes establish his character as neurotically health- and safety-conscious, dramatic irony comes a-callin’ when Gordon-Levitt starts experiencing acute back pain and his doctor says he has a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Before he can even process the news, he begins chemotherapy treatment at the hospital, and his friends and family struggle with the situation. His best friend (Seth Rogen) does his best to keep things light, but his mother (Anjelica Huston) smothers him with concern, and his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) doesn’t have the stomach for it. His young, inexperienced hospital therapist (Anna Kendrick) has trouble reaching him too, but they soon fall into a groove.
The comedy in 50/50 goes a long way toward keeping the sentimentality at bay, with Rogen, playing a version of his real-life self, showing how the affection between male friends can be smuggled into teasing and gallows humor. And though Kendrick gives the expected Anna Kendrick performance—terse, high-strung, fast-talking, a little awkward—there’s a touching interplay between her uncertain attempts to remain professional and her genuine feelings for her charge. Too bad the film doesn’t extend the same generosity to Howard, who’s painted as two-timing and villainous, rather than merely overwhelmed by a commitment she can’t make. Yet 50/50 remains a funny, thoughtful film, less about surviving cancer than about the agonizing process of growing up.