Cancer and comedy come together in ‘50/50’

By Allison Ludtke

Flickr/Official Blackberry Images
Flickr/Official Blackberry Images

Cancer, which affects one in three people in their lifetime, is certainly a talking point of our generation and often, a somber one. It is the elephant in the room: people often think about the ever-present issues facing a cancer patient but they rarely ask for the answers.

“50/50” takes on this difficult task, using the unexpected combination of cancer and comedy to do so. The film brilliantly fuses the two in this relatable and heartfelt dramedy. “I look like Lord Voldemort” and “the more syllables it has, the worst it is” are just a few of the film’s memorable lines that takes the sensitive topic of cancer and handles it carefully with a humor that is accessible to audiences and allows them to laugh instead of cry. Divulging deeper than just the disease itself, this film gives audiences a look into the thoughts and experiences of a person living with cancer.

A film loosely based on writer Will Reiser’s fight with cancer, “50/50” brings the laughs and the tears with this portrayal of a regular, everyday guy facing fifty-fifty odds after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The quirky, yet fabulously written script incorporates dialogue such as, “if you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds,” and somehow makes a life-threatening diagnosis funny. Reiser, who wrote the screenplay, incorporates witty jokes and heartfelt moments, dealing with somber issues in a comedic but honest way in order to take this serious issue seriously without losing any of its relatability.

“50/50” features an all-star cast, including Seth Rogen, a friend of Reiser who was a part of Reiser’s real-life cancer experience, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard. Levitt shines as Adam, the film’s lead, who is an average guy content with playing by the rules. His straitlaced character – who cites “driving as the 5th leading cause of death” as the reason he doesn’t have a license – and charming innocence will win the hearts of viewers. Giving a performance of true emotional depth, Levitt skillfully portrays the highs and lows brought on by cancer and the uncertainties of life.


Once diagnosed with cancer, Adam takes on a new view of life as he informs those around him about his disease, and observes as they react to the news differently. Rogen stays true to his comedic roots, but incorporates a more sensitive side at times as he plays Adam’s wisecracking, profanity-spewing best friend Kyle. He sees Adam’s cancer as a perfect opportunity to attract women, but manages to have his shining moments in which his love and concern for his friend are subtly displayed.

Adam’s hipster girlfriend Rachael, played by Dallas Bryce-Howard will shock audiences with her blatant insensitivity. Seemingly used for a mix of comedic effect and shock value, her actions are so unbelievably coldhearted they’re almost funny. On the other side of the spectrum, Anna Kendrick’s endearing performance as Adam’s therapist, Katherine, serves as a constant reminder of honest intentions throughout the film.

The dynamic mix of relationships is what truly makes this film shine. The chemistry among those involved portrays how cancer affects every type of relationship in Adam’s life. Friendship, family and love are all part of the experience. Adam’s protective mother, played by Anjelica Huston, is overwhelmed with her son’s diagnosis and husband’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease, and adds another dimension to the film. From Adam’s somewhat distant relationship with his mother, to the harsh breakup he faces with his girlfriend, Adam must brave the changes with little certainty ahead.

From joyfully smoking medicinal marijuana with his best friend to the emotionally riveting realization of coming to terms with his unknown fate, the audience experiences Adam’s emotional rollercoaster right by his side. The numbness and confusion cancer patients often face is brilliantly portrayed throughout the film. The range of emotions the audience experiences with the characters, particularly Adam, makes the journey feel authentic.

In what could have easily been a depressing, overdramatic film, “50/50” succeeds in the difficult task of combining light-hearted comedy and existential drama. Unlike many films that try to glorify or exaggerate cancer, this film finds the perfect balance. It looks past the technicalities of hospitals and succeeds in setting an honest tone without forcing the emotions of its characters.

Combining the awkward, the funny, the uncomfortable and the heart-wrenching moments all brought on by the uncertainty of life, “50/50” will captivate viewers with its realistic portrayal of lives affected by cancer. Ironically named after the probable survival rate of the main character, this film will make audiences look past the statistics and think about life for what it is.

Allison Ludtke can be reached at [email protected]