'50/50' skillfully mixes cancer, comedy and caring

Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays a cancer patient in "50/50."

The title "50/50" refers to a cancer victim's chance of survival. It also reflects the film's comic/dramatic ratio -- and the chance of disaster in trying to combine the two.

There's nothing malignant about our hero, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the handsome young man you may have seen running around Downtown Pittsburgh recently in pursuit of Bat people). Here he's Adam, a centered 27-year-old who is so straight that he waits for "Don't Walk" to change to "Walk" at 5 a.m. with no cars in sight.
Adam's well-ordered life is progressing just fine, thank you, in its quietly uneventful way. He likes his job at a Seattle public radio station, and he has a satisfactory if not exactly thrilling relationship with Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his live-in girlfriend. The closest thing to a problem he has is best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen), his diametric opposite -- a sloppy, potty-mouth, ne'er-do-well womanizer who hates Rachael and constantly badgers Adam to find another Eve. Kyle is a pain in the neck.
But Adam has a pain in his back. That drives him to his doctor, who callously delivers the news that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. Chance of beating it? You guessed it -- 50/50.
Rachael tries to rally to the occasion -- not too successfully. She's got an art gallery exhibit coming up, and "I don't like to mix positive and negative -- it's an energy thing." Kyle's relentlessly one-track advice is for Adam to hit the cruising circuit and bed as many chicks as he can, with whatever remaining time he has.
The girlfriend-and-best-friend-from-hell make for a dubious support system. The mother-from-purgatory (Anjelica Huston) isn't too useful, either. To help him deal with the heavy psychological issues, Adam is assigned to therapy with the pretty Dr. Kate (Anna Kendrick). Trouble is, she's the pretty student Dr. Kate -- so young and inexperienced that she doesn't understand his gallows humor in general, his references to Doogie Howser in particular.
Sitcom goes serious, or at least more muted, when the chemotherapy sessions and hair-loss kick in, and Adam is forced to share the company of a trio of older men in similarly grim circumstances. Fortunately for him, they have and share a wiser outlook -- heavily laced with medical marijuana -- that facilitates his transition through painful stages of physical and psychological discovery.
To the extent that it works, this delicate balancing act depends on the very appealing Mr. Gordon-Levitt, an ex-child star of TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun," who made his movie debut at age 10 in "A River Runs Through It" (1992). He later appeared in "10 Things I Hate About You" (1999), then took time out to attend Columbia University (always a good decision) before returning to the screen in "Mysterious Skin" (2004) and earning accolades for it. Nowadays, he looks like a young Tommy Kirk, the Disney star -- and, as noted, he will soon appear in "The Dark Knight Rises" as John Blake, a new Gotham detective who joins Commissioner Gordon's squad to catch Batman.
Miss Kendrick is cute enough to advance her character's relationship with Adam more or less believably. Most of the laughs along the way are officially delegated to Mr. Rogen, in one of his better roles. At one point, he tries to cheer up Adam about the 50/50 prognosis by mentioning the cancer battles of Lance Armstrong and Patrick Swayze.
"Didn't Swayze die?" Adam asks. But he's even more disturbed by the fact that "No one wants to [sleep with] me -- I look like Voldemort."
The NPR station's "celebrate-Adam's-life-not-death" party is a funny, if heavy-handed, parody of that macabre death-defying phenomenon, while Adam's huge, ugly dog "Skeletor" lives up to its name and humor potential.
Some of the film's best scenes involve visits by Adam's Alzheimer-ridden father and control-freak mother. Ms. Huston comes dangerously close to caricature but stops just short of it -- to good final effect. "I'm gonna die, you're gonna die, we're all gonna die," someone says. "Why is everybody so [expletive] scared to say it?"
Director Jonathan Levine -- known only (to me) for an offbeat gem called "The Wackness" (2008), with Ben Kingsley and Olivia Thirlby -- juggles the disparate elements well, with the help of Will Reiser's smart script. The result is neither great drama nor great comedy but sufficient to make you care. At 50/50, Adam's challenge is not to beat the odds but to win the crapshoot.
Or are comedy and cancer intrinsically incompatible? Forgive me, but there's a terrible joke I have to tell: Guy goes to the doctor. Doctor examines him and says, "I have bad news and worse news." Guy asks for the bad news first. "You have cancer." Oy, veh -- what's the worse news? "You have Alzheimer's." Guy thinks for a while and says, "Well, at least I don't have cancer."
Joking about cancer is risky business for stand-up comics but even more so for "50/50's" filmmakers, walking a fine line geared to the bottom line, not just a punch line. Cancer and comedy go together like spam and eggs. Which is not necessarily a put-down. Don't knock it till you've tried it.
Subscribe to BarryParis.com RSS Feed