A review of "50/50," a "cancer comedy" starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen that you'll likely be glad you saw.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a nice guy with a great job at a Seattle NPR station, a promising relationship with up-and-coming artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best-friend-since-high-school named Kyle (Seth Rogen) to hang with — and, as he learns to his horror in a doctor’s office, cancer.
His face goes blank as he tries to calculate how this could possibly have happened to him. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink,” Adam tells the doctor. “I recycle.”
Directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) and inspired by screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences as a 20-something cancer patient, “50/50” deftly blends tragedy with comedy — in a way that feels, often effortlessly, like real life.
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The film, whose title comes from Adam’s survival odds, definitely doesn’t soft-pedal the horror of a cancer diagnosis: We see Adam sitting alone in the dark, sick and exhausted from chemo and worry, wondering why the phone isn’t ringing; we see the tearful reaction of his overbearing yet loving mother (Anjelica Huston); we see Adam’s quiet, frightened face as the doctor tells him the details of the complex surgery he will need. (His diagnosis is a rare tumor on the spine, which Kyle calls “back cancer.”)
And we watch as Rachael, confronted with a crisis too early in the relationship — is initially supportive, yet soon retreats. “You have no idea how stressful this is,” she tells Adam.
So the central relationship in this movie isn’t between Adam and his girlfriend, or Adam and his mother — it’s Adam and Kyle. Gordon- Levitt, a fine actor who lifts every movie he’s in, has the difficult task of playing the nice character around whom the movie’s more colorful players revolve, and he’s so low-key and funny and charming that he quietly slips into our hearts.
Opposite him, Rogen gives Kyle a happy lunkheadedness. Kyle isn’t sure exactly what he’s in for, but he knows he’s in for the duration, and he’s sensing there might be something in this for him as well (women love a guy who takes care of his buddy, right?).
Though Rogen’s not a particularly subtle actor — he’s more of a yeller — he and Gordon-Levitt believably convey a pair of guys who don’t quite know what hit them, and whether it’s OK to laugh. (They do anyway.)
Also woven deftly into the mixture is Anna Kendrick as a young (very young) therapist assigned to work with Adam; Huston as the kind of mother who explains “I want you to know that I smothered him because I love him” to anyone who will listen; and gravel-voiced Philip Baker Hall as a cheerfully profane chemo buddy in a vintage Mariners cap.
Only Howard’s role is a bit of a misstep: Rachael seems just a bit too nasty and throws the movie off-balance.
And Seattle audiences will be amused by the movie’s all-too-obvious substitution of Vancouver, B.C., for our city, particularly a scene in which Adam bemoans the fact that he’s “never even been to Canada” while sitting in what’s clearly a Vancouver park.
So it’s not a perfect movie, but it doesn’t matter. “50/50” takes on a bold subject and makes us laugh and cry. I thought I didn’t want to see a cancer comedy; I was wrong.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org