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When cancer is funny


50/50 (MA). Director: Jonathan Levine. Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Angelica Houston, Anna Kendrick, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer. 100 minutes

'I don't think we added humour to something that isn't funny,' Seth Rogen told The Guardian last year. He was referring to 50/50, the new comedy in which he co-stars as Kyle, the best friend of 27-year-old Adam (Gordon-Levitt), who has been diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. 'I think most [cancer] movies remove humour from something that at times is very funny.'

Cancer might sound like highly unlikely comedic fodder. But the film has authentic roots: its screenwriter Will Reiser based the script on his own successful battle against cancer, and the support he received from friends such as Rogen. 'In our experience, Will didn't lose his sense of humour,' says Rogen. 'We just wanted to show the reality of it, which to us was a mix of tragic and funny.'

50/50 straddles this line with honesty and sensitivity. The tone often changes from comic to dramatic from one scene to the next. But the two elements hang in balance rather than jarring. This is evident even in the casting: Gordon-Levitt's heartfelt performance as the introverted everyman grappling with the reality of his mortality provides a perfect anchor to Rogen's often crass and buffoonish humour.

The film follows Adam from his diagnosis through the hazards of chemotherapy to still more hazardous surgery. Along the way he encounters the world's worst doctor (who delivers bad news as if he's muttering to his dictaphone); befriends two fellow chemo patients (one of them dies — such is life and cancer); and tries to dodge the overbearing advances of his mother (Houston).

He begins sessions with a young therapist (Kendrick) whose lack of experience tells on her; Adam is impervious to her platitudes and forced empathy. Yet a sense of solidarity grows between them (because he is 'new' at cancer and she is 'new' at therapy), which tends towards friendship and even romance. This subplot is cute, but somewhat awkwardly realised, considering the ethical questions surrounding a therapist becoming personally involved with a patient, even once therapy has ceased.

At the heart of the film is Adam's friendship with Kyle. Rogen's patented loveable buffoon character is played here mostly for crass humour as he encourages Adam to use his illness as a sympathy card to attract women, or as an excuse to use drugs. Still you can never escape the suspicion that he genuinely has his friend's interests at heart. This suspicion is eventually confirmed in moving fashion.

50/50 inevitably gets weepy. The image of a terrified Adam telling his oblivious Alzheimer's suffering father that he loves him, then instinctively reaching for the comfort of his mother before he goes into surgery possibly never to return, could be unbearably mawkish. But the humour and humanity in the film mean that by this point, we genuinely do care. We've laughed, now we cry. Such is life.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, cancer, 50/50



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Existing comments

Your review has inspired me to see this film Tim.
Thank you .

DAVID HICKS | 08 March 2012  

Tim, there is nothing funny about cancer.

Patrick McNamara | 08 March 2012  

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