Tearjerking bromance asks, “Can you make a chick flick for dudes?”
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
At some point in their career, even the wackiest of comedians feel the urge to wring laughs from the least funny, most sentimental of situations. Adam Sandler dabbled in it with Funny People, playing a standup comedian with a terminal blood disease. Robin Williams, on the other hand, has wallowed in the maudlin so many times (Patch Adams, et al), he’s like a pig in mud. Most infamously of all, slapstick king Jerry Lewis wrote, directed and starred in a film so tonally at odds with itself (1972’s The Day the Clown Cried, about a circus clown at a Nazi death camp) that it’s never even seen the light of day.
The question is not, “Can comedians be serious?” (They can, and often with much impact.) The question is, instead, can you really get laughs out of things like metastatic cancer? And should you? Funnyman Seth Rogen (Superbad), director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) and writer Will Reiser (a producer on “Da Ali G Show” and “Talkshow with Spike Feresten”) give it a go with 50/50.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, riding the wave from (500) Days of Summer, Inception and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra—but mostly Inception) is a cautious, anal retentive, do-everything-by-the-book 27-year-old who is rewarded for his prudence with an extremely rare form of spinal cancer. His odds of surviving the tumor: 50/50. Although, as his best pal Kyle (Rogen) puts it, “If you were a casino game, you’d have, like, the best odds in the whole casino.”
Rogen isn’t exactly stretching his abilities taking on the loudmouthed, slacker best friend role for the umpteenth time. But he’s got an ulterior motive. Like the film, he’s courting both humor and emotion. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk. Too much humor and the film can come off as callous. Too much emotion and it will read as mawkish. But 50/50 goes for the gold, trying to be that most rare of Hollywood genre films: the manly tearjerker. It’s a small category, occupied by 1971’s football-and-cancer drama Brian’s Song and ... well, not much else.
Women, according to traditional thought patterns, are the more emotional gender. Hollywood, being far more conservative than it’s willing to admit, knows how to market to those emotions. Hence, tearjerkers are almost exclusively aimed at female audiences—Terms of Endearment being the high-water mark of three-hankie chick flicks. But 50/50 is wise enough to name-drop. In trying to find a way to break the news of his illness to his mother (the briefly glimpsed but always-welcome Anjelica Huston), Adam beats around the bush before finally asking, “Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?”
So, if women feed off emotions, what do guys like? Dick jokes, fart jokes, that kinda stuff. (According to movie marketing statistics, anyway.) So, 50/50 finds a way to pack in all the sentiment that comes with your best friend dying of cancer and compound it with all the rude humor we’ve come to expect from today’s Judd Apatow school of movie comedy (Knocked up, The 40-year-Old Virgin, Pineapple Express and the aforementioned Funny People). While Adam struggles with his illness, trying to get through chemotherapy and hoping beyond hope he lands on the positive side of that 50/50 coin flip, Kyle does everything he can to keep his buddy’s spirits high—including getting the guy laid, playing the always cheerful comedian and ... when all else fails, getting him high.
There are plenty of predictable moments in the film—from the now-standard shock of the head-shaving scene to the expected romance with a cute psychiatrist (Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick). At the end of the day, though, 50/50 is a solidly constructed bromance about two odd-couple pals who bond over a life-threatening illness. Along the way, the film generates some honestly earned laughs and some real emotion. It is, as the title might imply, a well-balanced act.