Making a light, palatable movie out of a young man’s serious cancer seems like a very risky proposition. But this is such a movie. It seems to work because it is simple and true and because of the appeal of its cast. The experience under consideration actually happened to the comedy writer, Will Reiser, seven years ago, when he was working with Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg on “Da Ali G. Show.” They all collaborated on this film, and Rogen, who was Riser’s best friend, plays the best friend of the main character who is Reiser’s stand-in, so to speak. Jonathan Levine of The Wackness is the director. The other winning element — though all the main actors are appealing — is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Adam, a 27-year-old writer for Seattle public radio whose back hurts when he’s jogging. He goes for a checkup and learns he has a rare kind of cancer that has caused a large tumor on his spine. 50/50 are his chances of surviving.
Gordon-Levitt is cute but there is something cool and resilient about him. He’s thin, tubular, seems almost made of rubber, and he has crinkly lines around his eyes and a wry smile that flashes unexpectedly. Adam isn’t at all happy to learn about his cancer. But 50/50 is more about other people and how much trouble they have handling this situation.
First of all is Kyle (Seth Rogen), who loves Adam but also has a crass, exploitive side and can’t resist trying to use his friend’s serious illness as a way of scoring with chicks. Rogen may be slightly toned down here, but still a bit overbearing for such a comedy. On the other hand, he gets the easiest laughs and without him this would hardly be a comedy. The true anchor is Gordon-Levitt, in any case. Without him, this would be nothing.
Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a mess. Things were not going that well to begin with. She pretends that she cares and wants to stay, but she can’t handle the situation. She has to be kicked out. Bryce Dallas Howard does an excellent job of seeming icky, though doubtless the writing makes it easy for her.
Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is a nag. In giving constant attention she also requires it. Adam finds this quite burdensome as he struggles with his illness.
His allies are Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), older men who are also having chemotherapy for advanced stages of cancer, and whom he gets high with on medical marijuana. His other ally is the therapist he is assigned to, Katherine (the excellent Anna Kendrick). The only trouble is that these are frail supports. Alan and Mitch are likely to die. Katherine is only 24, and is really just learning how to be a therapist. Adam has to prop her up in a situation that is really way over her head. Only it becomes clear that Katherine is falling in love with Adam and that her love, unlike Rachel’s, is sincere and faithful.
Light and palatable the movie is, but also completely lacking in sentimentality or dishonesty, and thus it is curiously pleasurable and ultimately instructive. This begins with the doctor who gives Adam his diagnosis, who is ferociously clinical and cold, a hopeless communicator. Kyle (in Rogen’s usual broad style) finds many things about this gross, from Adam’s shaving his head to his big scar. Katherine admits she is out of her depth, but she is sincerely doing her best. Needless to say, Alan and Mitch don’t pull their punches. Adam is a bit idealized, by most standards, though Gordon-Levitt’s elasticity and cool make that work, and he does get his moment of rage and despair.
50/50 could have been darker and still be funny, but it chooses to avoid some of the grimmer aspects, not that it doesn’t allude to them. Adam probably experiences more pain and fear than we get to see. Indeed Kyle and Adam’s mother and Rachel might be more annoying than they appear here. However, there is a kind of clarity that emerges. Look, this is about Adam, but for everybody else, it’s about them. Of course we’d all like to deal with such a situation as cooly as Adam does. But he’s not meant to be perfect. He’s just a sounding board, a mirror. Thus the movie becomes about the patient’s experience in a rather unique way.
DIRECTOR: JONATHAN LEVINE
STARS: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT, SETH ROGEN, ANNA KENDRICK, BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD, ANJELICA HUSTON
RUNTIME: 99 MINUTES