(No longer in theaters)
Sep 30, 2011
The title 50/50 denotes the chance Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has of surviving (and, for that matter, not surviving) a rare spinal cancer—odds that his loud pal Kyle (Seth Rogen) points out would be the best ever if he were a casino game. That’s the kind of line that puts the movie over. As a joke, it’s more shrill than funny. As an expression of Kyle’s divided impulses—to cry out in horror and to say something upbeat—it’s funny and touching. Unlike most disease-of-the-week movies, 50/50 is itself split: Its focus lies half on the young man, blindsided by the prospect of a swift and early death, half on the people who behave like idiots in the face of his illness. Cancer becomes a springboard for tragicomedy instead of bathos.
What a tightrope this movie is. Director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser take a few spills early on. The doctor who gives Adam the diagnosis is too stridently impersonal—a scene worthy of the dire Diablo Cody. It’s a mistake to have Adam haltingly break the news to his protective mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), by asking if she’s seen Terms of Endearment: Now we’re in Neil Simon country. But things improve when Diane tries frantically to make him drink green tea because it (supposedly) cuts the risk of cancer by 15 percent—to which Adam cries, “I already have cancer.” The pacing helps. Huston and Gordon-Levitt get a good babble going, and Rogen’s driving timing is as sharp as anyone’s: Watch Kyle use Adam’s cancer to generate sympathy in pretty girls, briskly compensating for his friend’s cynical rejoinders: “He still has his sense of humor! It’s inspirational!” Bryce Dallas Howard has been fighting her demure good looks in movies like The Help, and she’s marvelous as Adam’s artist girlfriend, who knows the right supportive lines but can’t begin to cope with someone losing hair and puking: The harder she tries, the more she radiates insincerity.
But the movie belongs to Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick as his painfully green therapist. Gordon-Levitt still shows traces of the sitcom juvenile he was—now wasting away in front of us, his wide mouth grimly set. He’s the third patient of Kendrick’s Katherine, who hasn’t learned not to sound as if she’s following a script. She’s terrible at what she does, at least at this juncture, but what comes through—as she backtracks and restarts and blurts ahead—is her desire to be liked, to be helpful, to show empathy. Willful perkiness has never seemed so poignant. You want him to survive so they can smooch.