REVIEW: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Gives 50/50 a Fighting Chance
The world needs more cancer comedies. But it may not need more cancer comedies like 50/50. It's not that 50/50 is insensitive or dull or unfunny -- it sidesteps all those potential flaws with the delicacy of the most precise surgeon. Then again, the picture's delicacy may be misplaced: Directed by Jonathan Levine (who, in 2008, brought us The Wackness) and written by Will Reiser, 50/50 never risks offending or shocking us as far as the cancer angle goes, but it does slot in some pretty ho-hum non-cancer-related crudeness wherever it can. When cancer-stricken Adam, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, shaves his head with electric clippers belonging to his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), you don't have to guess where those clippers have been -- the movie tells you.
But where 50/50 does succeed is in showing cancer -- or illness in general -- as a part of life, instead of just treating it as a device to set the dramatic weight swinging. The picture could be so much better than it is, and yet it's also the kind of movie that makes you want to grade on the curve, adding extra points for good intentions. Adam and Kyle are pals who work in radio, the sort of gig that might have seemed like a dream job even 20 years ago, but now may as well be work performed by dinosaurs (and I say that ruefully). There's no great buildup to Adam's diagnosis, no overwrought, underlit "I found a lump!" preamble. His doctor delivers the diagnosis in a stream of jargon; it takes Adam a few minutes to figure out that the problem is a tumor attached to his spine, and the prognosis isn't promising.
It's bad enough to have to deal with your own illness; 50/50 acknowledges how much it sucks that you have to help other people deal with it too. Kyle, for one, accepts Adam's news by only half-accepting it. Recognizing that Adam's girlfriend (an icy, fluttery-eyed Bryce Dallas Howard) is less than supportive, he sets out to get Adam laid, without even discerning whether that's what Adam wants -- it's just that that's what he thinks he'd want. (It's a measure of the picture's mindfulness that having sex actually causes Adam some discomfort, something that wouldn't have occurred to Kyle.) Meanwhile, Adam treats his illness as business as usual -- what else is there to do? He begins his chemo treatments, where he makes pals of all ages (one played by the wonderful Philip Baker Hall); he tries to dodge his obviously concerned but overbearing mother (Anjelica Houston, making the most of a mildly dimensional role); and, most significantly, he begins attending sessions with a jittery junior therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick, putting her half-charming, half-awkward timing to work).
All of those are things that real people might do, and Gordon-Levitt navigates them in ways that are refreshingly unstrained. Plus, there's just no way around it: While you'd rather not see anyone get struck with cancer, you really don't want to see Gordon-Levitt struck with cancer -- his youth has something to do with it, but that's not everything. Gordon-Levitt looks as if he emerged from the womb a bit worried about how things would turn out. There's an air of thoughtful anxiety about him, which is part of what makes his cautious smile so appealing and effective when it breaks through.
Gordon-Levitt makes 50/50 worth watching, even though the unfortunate reality of the picture is that Seth Rogen is always close by, ready to make a comment about his balls or his dick or blow-jobs in general. Just keepin' it real, I guess. But it's time for Rogen to toss out the overgrown schlub routine. Besides, 50/50 doesn't need an overgrown schlub at all. The mini-tragedy of 50/50 is that we really could use a comedy, or a dramedy, or whatever you'd like to call it, that addresses -- among other things -- how a serious illness might affect a guy's sex life, or his prospects for romance. But we live in an age when sexual frankness usually just means a bunch of raw comments from the peanut gallery, disassociated from anything other than their own free-floating id. 50/50 falls into that trap rather than resisting it, but at least half the time it still shows its fighting spirit.