From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 of 4 stars. To read my interview with “50/50″ star Anna Kendrick, click here.
Movie review: 50/50
The cancer comedy finds both uproarious humor and touching tenderness in that dreaded, potentially deadly malady without ever becoming uncaring, or worse, mawkish.
It boasts the most unlikely of premises, but the cancer comedy “50/50” finds both uproarious humor and touching tenderness in that dreaded, potentially deadly malady without ever becoming uncaring, or worse, mawkish.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick and Anjelica Huston give subtle performances worthy of awards consideration, film fans’ appreciation of “50/50” largely depends on their tolerance of a hefty dose of Seth Rogen’s usual brand of boorish man-child wisecracking. On a number of levels, Rogen was key to getting the movie made, but his usual raunchy slacker/stoner shtick quickly wears on my nerves, despite a few moments of surprising sensitivity from his best-pal character.
Screenwriter Will Reiser loosely based “50/50” on his own experiences as a 20-something battling cancer during his tenure as associate producer on the British import comedy series “Da Ali G Show.” His pals Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who are among the producers of “50/50,” were writers on the show at the time and encouraged Reiser to pen a screenplay exploring the darkly funny aspects of coping with cancer.
Reiser and director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) imbue “50/50” with an easy naturalism and affecting humanity.
Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) is a cautious, precise and low-key sort of fellow. The 27-year-old refuses to jaywalk on his morning run, he won’t learn to drive since car accidents are a leading cause of death, and in his editing job at a public radio station, he struggles to get all the “ums” out of the narration of a volcano story. His restrained personality is a perfect foil to his boisterous and bawdy best buddy and co-worker Kyle (Rogen).
When Adam seeks medical attention for chronic back pain, he gets a shocking diagnosis: a massive, malignant tumor is growing along his spinal column. In one of the movie’s darkly hilarious scenes, his physician doesn’t tell him he has cancer so much as rattle off the doctor-y jargon into a digital recorder while Adam is in the room. After doing some Internet research, the understandably shell-shocked Adam learns he has a 50/50 chance of survival.
Adam’s friends and family react to the sobering news in a variety of ways. His worrywart mother (Huston), who already has to contend with his father’s (Serge Houde) early onset Alzheimer’s, immediately makes Adam feel smothered. While initially taken aback, Kyle quickly begins scheming ways that he and Adam can use the diagnosis to score medical marijuana and sympathy sex. Their co-workers throw Adam an awkward party where the reactions range from patently false cheeriness to practically uncontrolled weeping.
Although their relationship has been troubled, Adam’s self-involved artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) vows to stay with him and help him fight cancer. She even buys him a dog, but when she refuses to accompany him to his chemotherapy treatments — she drives him but waits for hours in the car — her loyalty and fortitude are called into question. Adam bonds with fellow cancer patients Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall), whose humor and pot-laced brownies help get him through chemo.
Adam is less willing to accept the support of Katherine (Kendrick), his assigned therapist at the teaching hospital where he is seeking treatment. Although she earnestly wants to help him, Adam is just her third patient, and he never lets her forget it. As she haltingly follows the textbook-recommended counseling methods, Katherine’s sincere sympathy slowly wins him over, but their relationship begins to become less doctor-patient and more potential love match.
Despite its unusual conceit, “50/50” clings a bit too closely to the usual storytelling tropes, and it doesn’t tie up all the loose plot threads. But Gordon-Levitt and most of the supporting cast bring an authenticity to their characters that makes them relatable, whether or not we’ve gone through a similar encounter with cancer.