The Holocaust. Suicide Bombers. Armageddon. Cancer. James Corden. Some things in life just aren't inherently funny. Yet, time after time the cinematic world succeeds in achieving something prosperous with them (bar James Corden). Films such as Dr. Strangelove, Four Lions, The Producers and their ilk have all managed to mine mirth from the type of subjects lesser talents shouldn't touch with a string of barge poles taped together.
In the right hands, however, as Kate Capshaw so eloquently said: anything goes.
Heavily based on screenwriter Will Reiser's own struggles, 50/50 tells the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a play-it-safe, non-smoking, non-drinking, non-living 27-year-old informed that he has a rare, life-threatening bout of 'back cancer'. Charging through the different levels of shock, denial, acceptance and anger, Adam – helped and hindered along the way by his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) – tries to cope with the idea that his life may be cut painfully short.
That the screenplay was written by someone who went through the same hardship as Adam won't be at all a surprise for anyone who has seen the end result. 50/50 is littered with truths that come out only two ways - either through years of research, or having lived every minute of it. What may be more of a surprise is the fact that Seth Rogen played the role for real, being, as he was, the writer's best friend. Which is great news for anyone that finds the prospect of Seth Rogen playing yet another crude, cannabis addicted, arrested developer as appetising as a dose of chemo.
This is Seth, but not as you know him. As a supporting player – in the most literal way possible – the hairiest comedy actor since Robin Williams nails the role of the playmate unsure of just how to help his buddy deal with his crushing news, but sure enough to know he'll do anything he can. He's Samwise to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Frodo.
After a slow opening, 50/50 springs to life when we spend time with the new people in Adam's world. While Anna Kendrick gets to play a (much better) variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it's the fellow cancer copers Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer - as a pair of weed-loving old folks - that really aid the film to sing. A drug-fuelled trip that would feel like a cliché in the wrong hands will leave you grinning inanely, triggering the first real moment that you become invested in the lead's plight. From then on it's emotionally captivating to the last.
However, it's not without its faults. Bryce Dallas Howard, after the excruciatingly abhorrent The Help, is once again given a character possessing the grand total of one dimension. Apparently cancer isn't enough of a villain in the film so the makers have injected the type of grade-A bitch girlfriend role that would look over the top in a Jim Davidson production.
Despite this minor slip director Jonathan Levine has carved out a tonally sound film and yet another improvement on his two previous features (the enjoyable The Wackness and the sturdy Mandy Lane). If he continues to show these signs of improvement his next project - the intriguing zombie romance, Warm Bodies – might mark him out as a real future talent. All going well, we'll be back for a check-up in a year or two.
Tender, funny and life-affirming. 50/50 is a wonderfully personal account of staring Death in the face and struggling not to blink. As the ying and yang of tumour humour, Levitt and Rogen make a truly believable pair, realising that chuckles may be more beneficial than chocking up. The best medicine, indeed.
Release date: Friday November 23
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer, Brick), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, Pineapple Express), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Twilight).
Director: Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane).
Screenwriter: Will Reiser (50/50).
Running Time: 100 mins.