After being diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left), leans on his loud but loyal best friend (Seth Rogen) for moral support and comic relief.
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The idea of a movie about someone with cancer suggests either a very depressing experience about decline and death or a mawkish cinematic sympathy card about battling against the odds.
Yet “50/50,” in which an outwardly healthy 27-year-old is unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer, is neither of these.
Instead, it is a warm, funny and perceptive comedic drama about what happens when a young man suddenly has to look death in the eyes.
No doubt that’s because writer Will Reiser based the script on his personal experience. He found out he had cancer at 24 and it was his close friend and comic actor/producer Seth Rogen who helped him get through it. Now, they’ve turned their struggle into a work of thinly veiled fiction and one of the year’s most enjoyable films.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a Seattle public radio producer leading a comfortable life. He has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who has just moved in, a loud but loyal best friend (Rogen), and a nosy but loving mom (Anjelica Huston).
But his world is knocked off its axis when a visit to a doctor for back pain uncovers a malignant tumor.
What happens next — the sense of isolation, awkward moments with co-workers, chemotherapy, depression — may be expected but it’s handled with a deft, sweet touch. It’s all given more emotional heft by Rogen, who gives his best performance as a boorish smart aleck whose heart is quietly breaking for his friend, and Anna Kendrick (“Up In The Air”) as Adam’s young, inexperienced therapist who may be wiser than even she knows.
Director Jonathan Levine, known for such respected but little-seen indie films as “The Wackness” and “All the Girls Love Mandy Lane,” keeps things moving briskly so there’s no time to worry about some details, such as whether Adam has to fight with his insurance company. While that might strike some observers as unrealistic, “50/50” in general possesses a sense of truth that makes it more substantial than many heavier films dealing with similar life-or-death issues.
Sometimes it’s better to laugh, especially when you’re on the verge of tears.
4 stars (out of 5)
S TA R R I N G : Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Levine R AT E D : R for strong language, drug use, sexual content RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 39 minutes