Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
Directed by: Jonathon Levine (“The Wackness”)
Written by: Will Reiser (debut)
As soon as 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hears his doctor utter the word “cancer,” his ears begin to ring and his vision becomes blurry. For a few seconds, he becomes paralyzed, trapped under the weight of the revelation. From here, Adam begins his journey through the five stages of grief as he looks for acceptance, deals with treatment, seeks support, and tries to stay positive as his future becomes uncertain.
After Adam is diagnosed with cancer, he begins to deal with a lot of confusing emotions. His main source of support is his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a fun-loving stoner who tries to get Adam to use his cancer to pick up girls. To help him deal with the life-altering news, Adam turns to Katherine McKay, an unseasoned psychiatry doctoral student, to help him cope with the emotional aspects of the disease. To make matters worse for Adam, his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) is invasive and determined to take care him, even as he rejects her motherly instinct.
After an unsuccessful foray in “Hesher,” Gordon-Levitt returns to his comfort zone in a well-acted role that calls for unassuming charm and some heavy dramatic moments. As wisecracking friend Kyle, Rogen’s performance is a little uneven. There’s a sense of trying too hard by being needlessly vulgar that surrounds Rogen’s performance, but he is able to come through with some genuine laughs as well as displaying good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt. The highlight of the cast is Kendrick. Her charm is on full display and her scenes with Gordon-Levitt are among the best of the film. Their chemistry is so strong, sweet, and convincing that she actually elevates his performance during their scenes together.
It goes without saying that making a comedy surrounding such a devastating disease is challenging. But the beauty of humor is that with the right attitude and manipulation, it can be found in even the darkest and most unexpected of places. Taking a subject like cancer and finding tasteful ways to laugh at the situation is the mark of something truly special, and perhaps even inspirational to those dealing with stress and anxiety. And while “50/50” does utilize some laughter at the expense of Adam’s illness, too much of the humor comes from Rogen’s crass and sexual dialogue. It’s almost as if Rogen wandered onto the set straight from an Apatow movie and everyone just went along with it.
The dramatic moments hit hard and resonate, none greater than when Adam finally breaks down and Gordon-Levitt lets out a primal scream that shakes you to your core. But the first half of the movie shoehorns comedy that doesn’t necessarily fit, almost as if the filmmakers felt the need to make the audience laugh to keep them from feeling too many negative emotions. Perhaps the biggest problem is not only that the jokes hit at an inconsistent rate, but it also often disrupts the tone of the film.
While “50/50” occasionally struggles to strike a balance between drama and comedy, the final act is simply stunning. The events and emotions are so powerful that they will undoubtedly leave many audience members misty-eyed, which is a result of expert handling with heavy scenes. The humor might not connect consistently, but “50/50” is a minor triumph.