There are two phases in every life. The first is like the wide-eyed carefree plunge from a skydiving plane. Exhilaration. Fear. Wonder. Perspective. You can keep heaping nouns on that pile for quite a while. The second phase begins when you realize you’re not wearing a parachute.
50/50 is the story of a young man who learns he has cancer and must confront his own mortality. Truthfully, that description doesn’t really do the film justice. While it may be accurate, it doesn’t encapsulate the story or hint at its quality very well. I’ve seen tombstones that were more effective.
The plot isn’t what’s important. The typical emotional beats are there, a girlfriend who can’t cope, a friend in denial, a burdened mother who just wants to help her son. But the tone is what makes the film work.
50/50 is based on writer Will Reiser’s experiences after being diagnosed with cancer in his 20s. It’s the mixture of authenticity and humility that draws you in. I know the film is billed as a dramedy, and it deftly mixes the two. However, the emotional peaks are kept subdued.
At some points, 50/50 almost feels like a documentary. The film never says “cry here” or “pity here” instead about 20 minutes in, you get a lump in your stomach. That lump grows and works its way up until it’s in your throat. There’s no sentimentality or cynicism to channel your emotions into liking or disliking. There’s no one to purely hate or love, just human beings trying to deal with a life ending early.
Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Rachael, was probably my favorite. Most movies would probably have simply cast her as a minor villain and used her as an excuse to pity the main character. Howard’s performance brings out her humanity. You completely understand her actions. Rachael and Adam aren’t quite close enough to handle cancer, but they’re too close for Rachael to bail at the first sign of trouble. Instead, Rachael slowly detaches.
Anjelica Huston’s performance is also wonderful. She only gets a few scenes, but she pulls them off. The “blanket” scene is the perfect example of why 50/50 succeeds. It’s short and simple. Diane asks the nurse to lower the AC. The nurse says the AC is centralized and she can’t but offers a blanket to Adam. Adam refuses, but Diane asks for a blanket. The nurse leaves, and Diane says, “I don’t like her.”
In many ways that is 50/50’s Terms of Endearment scene. Only instead of Shirley MacLaine raising hell, Huston keeps it all beneath the surface. The ToE scene may be more powerful, but 50/50 feels more real.
That’s 50/50 in a nutshell. It doesn’t try to overwhelm you or to force emotions on you. It works with the emotions and connections you bring with you. It’s not an iconic film. You’re not going to talk about one scene or line for years. But you might find yourself revisiting it more than you thought.
The only real negative I could think of (and I’ve tried to find one) was the toothpaste discrepancy. Movies seem divided on the idea of whether or not people use toothpaste. In 50/50 Bryce delivers several lines while brushing her teeth without toothpaste. That’s fine. We let those details go. But when Adam kisses her, she suddenly has toothpaste in her mouth.
Well, there was one other negative. Once I noticed how far apart Anna Kendrick’s eyes were that was all I could see when she was on screen. She still looks great, but it will take awhile for me to forget it again.