by Sarah Silver
Dir. Jonathan Levine, U.S., Summit Entertainment
The title of 50/50, a comedy about a young man diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, refers to main character Adam’s chances of living. It also happens to be a fair measurement of the balance the film strives to achieve: 50 percent heartfelt drama, 50 percent raunchy bromance. The earnestness comes from Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the smut from his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), and the two play a fine game of give-and-take evening out one another's extremes the way healthy couples do. Like 2009’s Funny People, another Rogen-affiliated “comedy” about a character with an unusual type of cancer, 50/50 is a tough sell, and its marketing team has been working hard, canvassing YouTube and Facebook with banners and quizzes helping to determine who’s your “Go-to Buddy.”
Though it’s hard to imagine gaggles of straight men asking their “go-to’s” on man-dates to see this modest cancer dramedy (the film, ironically, is released in association with Mandate Pictures), perhaps the Rogen branding is endorsement enough to lure in fans expecting at least a few gross-out gags and unsettling opinions on womankind. Thankfully, “the guys who brought you Superbad” are on their best behavior here, relegating crude dialogue to just Rogen’s character, and justifying it with the idea that Adam needs all the laughs he can get, and even cheap ones are welcome. Screenwriter Will Reiser wrote the movie based on his own experiences dealing with cancer while on the writing staff with Rogen at Da Ali G Show. The two are close friends in life, so Rogen is essentially playing himself here, and Adam and Kyle’s Bert-and-Ernie relationship feels lived-in. (In the aforementioned “Go-to Buddy” spots, Reiser comes out to stand between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen and, as when Harvey Pekar joins Paul Giamatti in American Splendor, we see that Gordon-Levitt is playing a person who actually exists.)
Adam is a fit young man who, when first we see him, is jogging through misty blue streets of Seattle where he conservatively stops to obey traffic lights even when no cars are coming. He cares for his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), enough to clear one of his drawers out for her, and spends months perfecting one audio piece about a volcano at the radio program where he and Kyle work. Kyle doesn’t have a girlfriend and doesn’t like Adam’s, and he balks at Adam’s snail’s pace as he himself cranks out fluff piece after fluff piece at the ersatz Da Ali G Show. We get an earful of Kyle’s obnoxious opinions on Rachael (she should be willing to have sex even with a yeast infection, she doesn’t give enough blowjobs, etc.), and Adam weakly defends her, suspecting that, perhaps, Kyle is right. Meanwhile, chronic back pain leads Adam to the doctor where he hears but doesn’t really understand (the doctor speaks in incomprehensible medical jargon) that he has a hard-to-pronounce form of cancer. His response, echoed later by his mother (a brilliant Anjelica Huston), is “But I’m gonna be okay, right?”
And so Adam moves through the stages of grief, denial, anger, acceptance, as those around him go through their own process of understanding what’s going on. As Adam, Gordon-Levitt is disarming in his candor—the cancer seems to aid Adam in being less passive and eliminating unnecessary bullshit from his life. In a moving scene, he gives Rachael an escape clause right away, acknowledging that their relationship, already on the rocks, might not withstand the strain of life-threatening disease. She decides to stick around, but doesn’t last long (much to Kyle’s gloating delight), and the central woman in Adam’s life becomes his absurdly young therapist, Katherine (a poised Anna Kendrick). Katherine is still in school; she, like the rest of the ensemble, is perpetually learning. Adam is her third patient, and the two of them develop a relationship that moves in a predictable direction of breached professionalism, which feels slightly forced given the establishment, early on, of Katherine’s devotion to playing by the rules and counseling by the textbooks. Still, there is a real, if underdeveloped, sweetness between them, and their one out-of-the-office scene together (when Katherine gives Adam a ride home from chemo) goes a long way as shorthand for falling in love, or, at least, in like.
With Rachael out of the picture, Kyle’s one-note becomes “Help me help you get laid,” as he tries to score women for Adam (and mostly himself), by playing the sympathy card and working Adam’s cancer into conversation early on whenever they are out cruising together. Adam is hardly devoted to this cause, but plays along out of loneliness and boredom. He develops much deeper relationships with Alan and Mitch (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer), the old men he meets waiting for chemo, and whom he sees on a regular basis, as they all receive treatment on the same days. Alan’s pot macaroons contribute to a wonderful lyrical moment when Adam, walking the hallways high as a kite on his way to his first chemo treatment, sees life and death and the whole mess as something so ridiculously sad and fragile that it merits only to be laughed at and treated with the same flippancy as it treats us.
While the movie does attempt to walk the line between the seriocomic tragedy of Terms of Endearment and the sexual humor of American Pie, its sensitivity and natural humor land it squarely in the safe, comfortable confines of Indieville, which is a fine place for it to be. Cinematographer Terry Stacey (Adventureland) has a knack for poeticizing the quandaries of young men in distress, and the movie looks much more beautiful than the poster (an off-putting shot of Gordon-Levitt shaving his head while Rogen cringes in the background) would suggest. Director Jonathan Levine (whose début, The Wackness, was another comedy about sad men, albeit a much more miserable one) has managed to tone down some of his more excessive tendencies—overlong scenes, throwaway musical montages. His direction, in tandem with Reiser’s astute writing, make for a strikingly honest film.