Carol Burnett is known for having said that comedy is tragedy plus time. “50/50” is such a comedy. Very early on in the film, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns that he has cancer. At only 27 years old, he’s devastated by the news. One of the best scenes in the film is when his doctor clinically describes his condition to him. The sound fades out as Adam stares out the window. His face becomes blank and, for much of the movie, Adam walks around numb to the world. He has to face telling his friends, co-workers, girlfriend, and parents. His life changes dramatically in the next few months as he begins chemo-therapy and starts seeing a therapist to help deal with his feelings. As I type this, it all strikes me as a very depressing and bleak story. The movie certainly has those moments. It does not shy away from the ideas of tragedy, death and loss. But, in between these sad moments are some of the funniest sequences I’ve seen in a movie. I believe they are made even more hilarious by the tragedy that inspires them. It is as if, faced with our own mortality, we feel compelled to laugh in the face of death.
As anyone who has faced loss in their life, you realize that life goes on, we laugh as we cry. Sickness and death inspire deep, resounding feelings of sorrow and joy. 50/50 manages to include these moments, packed into every film frame. I’m not going to claim that 50/50 is forging new ground or that it does it better than anyone has ever done. However, the film is executed with a delicate expertise. It knows when to push for laughs and when to hold back.
Adam’s sickness causes his life to change dramatically, he re-evaluates what is important, as anyone should. Some of the greatest scenes involve his therapist (Anna Kendrick), who is so young and inexperienced, she doesn’t understand Adam’s “Doogie Howser” reference and can’t manage to console him. Another great source of comedy is Adam’s friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) who is convinced that cancer has a bright side, even if that bright side is limited to the amount of pity sex you can get by telling girls that you have cancer.
The film is delightfully irreverent and at times downright crude. At times it takes a somewhat misogynistic view of women. There is rampant marijuana use throughout (it’s medicinal) and, depending on how funny you think drug use is, this can go on for a bit too long. But the movie always came back to cancer, surviving, and living. Eventually, Adam breaks out of his numbness, finds the will to not only live but to rejoice in life, even as his is falling apart around him. Without any clear knowledge of whether he’ll live or die, Adam finds what is important to him.
This movie also reminds me of another phrase I first heard, this one from an English professor. He’d look me in the eye, explaining the most tragic of circumstances, laughing and saying, “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” I applaud not only 50/50’s unblinking attempt to tackle a difficult subject, but also for having the balls to look at it a laugh. There is comedy in tragedy and this film is not only well aware of that, but manages to make its audience aware of that as well. I give 50/50 a 9 out of 10