The characters and dialogue in “50/50” are so cool and hip and accessible, the movie almost succeeds in making us forget we’ve seen this story a dozen times before.
It’s the tale of a young guy who comes down with a very scary form of cancer — so scary, even other cancer patients have never heard of it. As one fellow patient advises, the more syllables a disease has, the worse it is.
Because it has an indie-rock soundtrack and stars Gen-Y favorites Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard, “50/50” has a witty, funny/sad vibe. But ultimately it’s another variation on the old laughing-through-the-tears shtick, in which monumental life challenges bring on the warm fuzzies and the laughs.
The film was reportedly based on a real-life event involving Will Reiser, a friend of Rogen who wrote the screenplay based loosely on his own bout with cancer. Rogen co-stars and is one of the producers, and Jonathan Levine directs with loose, jazzy style that gives most of the scenes a comfortable, lived-in feel.
Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old producer for the NPR affiliate in Seattle, slavishly working on a project about a remote volcano his boss could care less about. That’s sort of Adam’s M.O. — he’s a guy who sticks himself in a corner, keeps low expectations and is content to be the wingman for Kyle (Rogen), his garrulous best friend who’s always looking to get laid all the time.
A pain in his back turns out to be spinal cancer, as his doctor lays out for him with an appalling lack of human warmth, spouting a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo into a voice recorder rather than talking to the man in front of him.
I happen to think Gordon-Levitt’s one of the best actors of his generation, and he doesn’t disappoint here, showing us the edges of Adam’s interior. Adam has become very good at fooling others into thinking he’s a happy person — no one has fallen for it harder than himself.
His girlfriend, Rachael, is an artsy type played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who promises to stick by Adam, but everyone, including Rachael, secretly doubts she’s up to the challenge. She only has one drawer’s worth of her stuff at Adam’s house, and we sense this mirrors her emotional investment in their relationship.
Kyle, meanwhile, keeps taking Adam out to drink and party, and eggs him into using his newly bald head and sad story to get women to sleep with him. (In the world that exists only in the minds of screenwriters, this actually works.)
“No one wants to (score with) me,” Adam protests, “I look like Voldemort.”
Some of the best scenes are at Adam’s chemotherapy sessions, where he cozies up to the regulars. In this tiny community, one’s affliction is announced like a vocation: “Alan, stage three lymphoma.” “Mitch, metastatic prostate cancer.” Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer quietly dazzle as a pair who have moved beyond fretting about letting their disease define them.
The X factor is Anna Kendrick as Katherine, the medical student who takes on Adam in therapy sessions. Adam, who is used to always being the youngest person in any room, is put off being administered to by someone even younger than he. She’s so young, Katherine doesn’t even get his Doogie Howser jokes.
Their relationship develops in time, though, and it doesn’t take long to figure out they wish they’d met in other circumstances. I enjoyed the authenticity of Kendrick’s performance as a serious young woman who’s still figuring out her professional and personal boundaries. There is no doubt she will turn out to be a better, more caring doctor than the lunkhead who blurted out the news about Adam’s cancer.
I enjoyed this movie, though admittedly I’m a sucker for a good weepy/funny dramedy. I just want Rogen, Reiser, Levine and the gang to know that even though I’m giving their flick a thumbs-up, I see through their ruse. This is “Terms of Endearment” with a heavy ladle of testosterone and a smirk.