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Cancer Battle Gets Personal in 50/50

Cancer Battle Gets Personal in <i>50/50</i>

Release Date: January 24, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: September 30, 2011
Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content and drug use)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 99 min.
Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall

Adam is a 27-year-old Seattle guy who is anything but a risk-taker. He waits for the walk light before crossing a deserted street. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. He doesn’t smoke. He recycles. So when the nagging pain in his back turns out to be a rare, potentially deadly form of cancer, Adam (naturally) feels incredulous, cheated, and scared.

Based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own battle with cancer, 50/50 is a funny, heartbreaking look at what happens next. Yes, it really is genuinely funny, despite being a “cancer movie.” The humor isn’t forced, either; it grows organically out of Adam’s situation. Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) in a post-screening interview, said the cast “tried to find the honesty in the story and never played it for laughs.” Though it’s impossible to know for sure, the film does feel like an authentic representation of Reiser’s experience.

It’s also a beautifully understated movie; it doesn’t tell the viewer how to feel. Instead, by walking with Adam through the progression of his illness and seeing the effect it has on those around him, the emotional moments—and there are some—come about naturally.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that so much of the language is so awful. At a rough estimate, fully one quarter of the script’s word count is profanity, with the f-word emerging as the clear favorite. It may well be an accurate representation of the way these characters would speak (and how sad is that?) but it was painful (and eventually tiresome) to listen to. It’s such a shame, because 50/50 is a story worth telling and in many ways it was told very well.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) is marvelous as Adam. As his thin, expressive face grows ever more frail he quietly worms his way into our hearts. Seth Rogen (Kung Fu Panda 2), who plays a role based on himself (he’s screenwriter Reiser’s real-life best friend), is believable, if often unpleasant. His character is responsible for most of the profanity and salacious content.  (For example, he sees Adam’s cancer as a heaven-sent way to pick up women for casual sex.) He’s as good a friend as he can be, for all that. Therapist-in-training Kate (Anna Kendrick) is as clumsily charming as Adam’s erstwhile girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help) is needy and annoying. And, not surprisingly, Anjelica Huston (When in Rome) shines in her brief role as Adam’s mother, a woman caught between her husband’s Alzheimer’s and her son’s devastating disease.

The language, the sex (often graphically discussed, once displayed), and the drug use—apparently medical marijuana is one of the perks of cancer in Seattle, and not only for the patient—make it difficult or impossible to recommend this movie. That’s a shame. It’s emotionally honest, genuinely heartbreaking, and a story that needs to be told.


  • Drugs/Alcohol: Medicinal marijuana is heavily used throughout, and not just by those with medical conditions. Drinking—at home, in a bar, at parties—and drunkenness.
  • Language/Profanity: At a guess, about a quarter of the dialogue is profanity. The f-word is the majority of that, but sh--, da--, he--, a--hole
  • Sex/Nudity: Sex is a major topic of (graphic and profane) conversation; characters are shown in the act and sharing a bed (or couch), scantily clad, afterward; moderately discreet male and female nudity (no genitalia shown).
  • Violence: Emotional breakdowns and a violent destruction of a painting (a very satisfying scene, it must be said).