Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen put the “bro” in neuro-fibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma in “50/50,” a kind of buddy cancer comedy based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences with the disease.
Reiser’s goal was seemingly to make a non-maudlin movie about cancer that captures the disbelief of those diagnosed in their 20s and the humor friends and family sometimes use as support. While it definitely achieves that modest ambition, there isn’t enough new ground covered elsewhere to call it “must-see viewing.” More than likely, you’ve seen it before.
Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is a writer for a Seattle NPR station who has successfully avoided any potential dangers in his life, from smoking and drinking to driving in the city, until he is a diagnosed with a rare type of spinal cancer. From there, he deals with breaking the news to his friend, Kyle (Rogen), and his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and meeting with young therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick).
Already, there are numerous elements of the story that have been put onto the big screen before. The most obvious comparison is “Funny People,” another comedy co-starring Rogen that explored how dark humor can help confront terminal illness, but it’s not the only one that can be made. The increasingly intimate therapist-patient relationship between Adam and Katherine has been covered before in movies as divergent as “The Departed,” and the film builds up to a will-he-or-won’t-he-make-it ending familiar to any cancer film.
Still, there’s a welcome sense of low-key naturalism in “50/50,” which could possibly be credited to the presence of “The Wackness” director Jonathan Levine. Reiser’s script also has an appreciated realism compared to the recent “Sympathy for Delicious,” where wheelchair-bound screenwriter Christopher Thornton turned his experiences into a baffling tale of faith healing and rock music.
The movie’s best-observed moments are small details – empty food and drink containers messily strewn about graduate student Katherine’s car, Kyle playing video games next to a disinterested-looking woman the morning after a one-night stand – rather than the big, audience-pleasing moments such as Kyle’s confrontation with Rachael.
Rachael’s character is one of the biggest problems with “50/50.” It would’ve been genuinely interesting to see her struggle in her relationship with Adam and see if she somehow could’ve been a sympathetic character while leaving a man with cancer.
Instead, the movie takes an easier way out in a scene that makes her an unquestionably villainous figure. While it’s hard to say if Reiser is just accurately recounting his experience – one sincerely hopes he didn’t have to date anyone this awful – Rachael comes off as a caricature in a film full of characters drawn from real life.
Gordon-Levitt has continually been the best thing in films ranging from “Mysterious Skin” and “(500) Days of Summer,” and he pulls off another convincing and charismatic performance here. Adam’s often-mentioned radio piece on volcanoes becomes a metaphor for his simmering, volcanic personality following his diagnosis, and it’s to the actor’s credit that when he finally explodes it seems credible.
Even more so than usual, Rogen is playing a version of himself as he and Reiser are good friends in real life, and his performance’s effectiveness will depend on the viewer’s opinion of Rogen as a person. Kendrick fares well while character actor Matt Frewer makes a dramatic impression with little screen time as a fellow cancer patient.
“50/50” has already built up a tremendous amount of goodwill through its screenplay’s sympathetic subject matter and a large number of preview screenings, which means it should do quite nicely at the box office this weekend. This would be a good thing, as the film is funny and relaxed in a way more wide-release films would benefit from. Yet, as the fall season begins and prestige films are slowly trickling into theaters, filmgoers can wait to see “50/50.”