Almost everyone I know has been touched by cancer in some way: as a brother, child, parent, or survivor. And everyone would agree that it is, to say the very least, no laughing matter. So it’s surprising that “50/50,” a movie about a 27-year-old man who discovers that he has a rare form of the disease, succeeds as comedy.
Based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser and his friend Seth Rogen, who produces and co-stars, the movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam Lerner, a Seattle radio producer. Director Jonathon Levine emphasizes Adam’s ordinariness, almost his blandness. The role feels perfectly written for Gordon-Levitt, though he reportedly stepped in at the last minute. His foil, Kyle (Rogen, playing to type), is a full-out, raunchy, shameless extrovert who attempts to capitalize on his buddy’s illness to pick up chicks for both of them. (In real life, Rogen did stick by his friend Reiser, but without the selfish behavior.) Adam’s artist girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), promises to take care of him but ultimately reneges. And Adam’s mother—a nice cameo by Anjelica Huston—seems more upset for herself than her son.
In short, Adam is increasingly isolated, left to deal with his illness and the toll of chemotherapy on his own. Even the young hospital therapist, played with fetching anxiety by Anna Kendrick, proves not much help. She’s training for her degree — Adam’s only her third patient — so her textbook recitations put him off. Cinematographer Terry Stacey visually reinforces Adam’s loneliness, even in crowded singles bars, and he desaturates the colors as Adam sinks physically and psychically.
The ending is telegraphed fairly early on, but the movie gets there without jerking too hard on our heartstrings. (“Terms of Endearment” and a Patrick Swayze reference are played for laughs, for instance.) The filmmakers play nicely with driving bits, leading up to a scene where Adam finally blows his stoic reserve, Gordon-Levitt convincingly exploding while Rogen looks on in bewilderment from outside the car. The story also entertains some interesting notions about what constitutes genuine caring: Lerner “learns” along the way from his various caregivers, eventually emerging from his own numbed responses into something like acceptance and wisdom.
“50/50” gets laughs from some unusual setups: chemotherapy room banter, changing the dressing on a surgery scar, dealing with abandonment and hurt. It’s rated “R” for consistent profanity (again, Rogen’s trademark), drug use, and some mild sexuality. If the story has a familiar arc, Reiser’s own experience lends it some welcome authenticity, holding a delicate tension between comedy and melodrama, and some solid performances flesh out the characters engagingly.