Cancer is one of those things you’re not supposed to joke about. Even stand up comedians tend to shy away from the topic, unsure of who in the audience might be personally affected. True, there is isn’t much humor to be found in the subject beyond the standard comic fodder of shaved heads, but every once in a while you manage to find something in the awfulness of the disease that makes for a great story.

50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, finds a way to be funny about cancer. Gordon-Levitt plays a 27 year old radio segment producer who visits his doctor to complain about lingering back pain. Once the test results come back, his comically stiff doctor delivers the bad news: it’s cancer of the spine, and it’s a form of the disease with an incredibly long name. Our hero rationalizes that the longer the name, the worse the disease.

Rogen plays his best friend, the standard “stoner goof ball” who has an opinion about everything. Armed with the WebMD knowledge that the prognosis is, at best, 50/50, the pair set about trying to make life as enjoyable as possible, despite the chemotherapy sickness, the hair and weight loss, and damaged relationships.

Written by a cancer survivor, the script feels personal and honest. Encounters with doctors and nurses are awkward and impersonal. Delivering the bad news to friends and family is a mixed bag of humor and tears. Romantic relationships are put to the test, to both great and tragic results. The script artfully dances between comedy and dramatic emotion, never going too far in one direction before balancing out by darting to the other. You’ll laugh, but the laughs are grounded and deserved.

The acting is also well done, with Gordon-Levitt providing a solid backbone to the story, which allows Rogen to do his thing without distracting the narrative. I feel like Seth Rogen has reached his saturation point by now, and his presence can be detrimental to some movies. His characters are usually extremely similar to each other, and that’s the case in 50/50. However, in 50/50 his natural joy and goofiness is a wonderful balance to the emotion of Gordon-Levitt, and the pair play off each other smoothly.

Smartly written, 50/50 is a nice little film about relationships under great stress. It sweetly combines comedy with drama and never feels like it is dishonest in its intentions or point of view. A terrific cast pulls the entire piece together, and makes this one of the more enjoyable 2011 films I’ve seen.

[starreview tpl=16]

Liked it? Take a second to support The Pensky File on Patreon!