Film Review: 50/50

There are some hearty, mordant laughs to be had in this uneven “cancer comedy,” but the best reason to see it is the admirably self-effacing and deeply affecting performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Based on the real-life experience of its screenwriter, Will Reiser, 50/50 is the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Seattle public-radio producer who suddenly discovers that he has cancer. His scruffy best bud, Kyle (Seth Rogen, also a producer), tries his sloppy best to be supportive, with techniques ranging from using his illness to score with chicks to unhelpful counsel like mentioning all the celebrities who have beat the illness (“Lance Armstrong, Patrick Swayze…oops!”). Meanwhile, Adam’s rather remote girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), shows her true colors when Kyle, who has always hated her, gleefully catches her canoodling with another guy at a party.

Adam’s (unconvincingly) insensitive physician sends him to an achingly young illness counselor, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who tries her best, considering that Adam is only the third patient she has ever dealt with. She may be inept, but she’s adorable and her heart’s certainly in the right place, so guess what happens between her and her now single, bereft patient? And then there is his family to contend with, which consists of a dad with Alzheimer’s (Serge Houde) and a smothering alarmist mother (Angelica Huston) who do blessed little to help matters.

This film’s title is very apropos because not only does it refer to Adam’s chances of survival but also to the quality of the piece itself. Half of it is well-observed and often quite funny, while the other portions veer into the kind of mawkish predictability and easy, sitcom-ish mindset one expects from your rote “death movie.” (When Adam announces his condition to his parents, he even humorously invokes that deathless template of the genre, Terms of Endearment.) A case in point is the climactic hospital scene wherein Adam goes under the hopefully life-saving knife, and his friends and family finally meet Katherine in the waiting room. The set-up is everything you’d expect—and dread—but Reiser suddenly saves it by having everyone hilariously spouting their own personal guilt feelings about Adam at the poor girl. This kind of surprising turnaround is typical of the film’s often hard-won charm.

A major element of its success is Gordon-Levitt, who gives a wonderfully understated, bathos-free yet powerfully heartfelt performance which should earn him important award consideration come this year’s end. It’s telling that most of the other actors around him have more demonstrably flamboyant roles to play, with him often acting as a very effective straight man/sounding board for their excesses. Rogen, for instance, foreseeably gets most of the big laugh lines (one about the exact meaning of the term “blow job” is particularly good) and is a welcome irreverent presence as is his usual wont, if a tad pushy at times (which is also his wont).

Like Rogen, Kendrick doesn’t exactly show any new sides to her talent, but is, predictably, sweetly affecting with some brisk comic timing. Howard admirably doesn’t downplay Rachael’s iciness, and is reminiscent of Gail Patrick, who played so many heartlessly perfect bitches in the 1930s and ’40s. Huston deserves better than the clueless, facilely drawn, overwrought character she’s been given here, and there is a whole cutesy cadre of cancer-ridden, pot-loving codgers (Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, et al.) with whom Adam bonds in the hospital, who also represent the less felicitous, rotely conceived half of this movie.