There is an unassuming grace about “50/50” that sneaks up on you and rescues the movie from the genre-splicing sentimentality that threatens to turn this mortality comedy into a maudlin farce.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a neurotic and fastidious 27-year-old who is barely settled into adult life, is diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of cancer. The film charts the course of his treatment and his shifting mental and emotional state as he evaluates his life and his bonds with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his mom (Angelica Huston).
The movie bends over backward a bit to show itself as a self-aware, sardonic sort of cancer movie rather than plaintive tear-jerker. While “50/50” isn’t exactly a buddy movie or a romantic comedy, there are strong elements of each. As a romantic comedy, it’s completely predictable – as Rachel proves inadequate to the challenge of seeing Adam through a course of chemotherapy, Adam is drawn to his inexperienced but determined and sincere therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). The tiny and adorable Miss Kendrick (best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in “Up in the Air”) is a deceptively intelligent actress who ably handles the part.
On the buddy side, Mr. Rogen’s brand of gonzo irreverence is getting a bit tiresome; he’s played the same hyperkinetic but sincerely likable goof in films dating back to “Knocked Up” in 2007. He plies the same shtick here – this time as the loyal best friend who still can’t resist using Adam’s illness as a talking point to meet women. Screenwriter and executive producer Will Reiser, who based the story on his own battle with cancer, is friends with Mr. Rogen, and it’s unlikely that the movie would have been marketable without his involvement. But the presence of essentially the same affable stoner from “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express” robs “50/50” of the chance to be an unexpected movie experience.
The movie ultimately belongs to Mr. Gordon-Levitt. He’s more than convincing as a young man, unformed and uncertain, facing up to the idea of his own death. The role is remarkably textured and nuanced. At first blush, Adam seems to have very little stake in the events of his own life. He is put off by his mother’s doting and frightened by his father’s Alzheimer’s. The lack of passion in his relationship with Rachel, he feels, is balanced by her steadying, regular presence. As he struggles with his debilitating course of treatment – including several hilarious scenes with a pair of wisecracking older patients played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer – he gains insight. It’s not easy for an actor, especially a young actor, to convey the nearly imperceptible acquisition of wisdom. Mr. Gordon-Levitt manages to make it look natural.