50/50, inspired by scriptwriter Will Reiser's battle with cancer, faces all of the pitfalls of a Hallmark Channel disease-of-the-week movie, and it sometimes veers into that schmaltzy territory. Despite those moments that feel predictable and stereotypical, the film is more than rescued by its fine cast and Reiser's sharp, funny and honest writing.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen are so good here that they deserve awards buzz. They make 50/50, performance-wise, one of the best male-buddy movies in a long time.
Levitt plays Adam, a young man making a living in public radio while living in Seattle. (The movie is part-fantasy, because almost nobody can make a living in public radio, let alone corporate radio ... don't get me started.) He notices some back pain while jogging, gets an MRI and finds out that he has a rare spinal cancer—with a 50/50 chance of survival.
Rogen plays Kyle, Adam's best friend, who is also improbably making a living in public radio. Kyle's reaction to his friend's predicament is unorthodox: While he's probably freaking out in his private time, he turns up the party factor when around Adam, declaring that 50/50 is pretty good odds when it comes to cancer. Levitt and Rogen make for a good combo, with Levitt's dry, calm Adam a perfect complement to Rogen's over-reacting Kyle.
When Reiser had his real-life cancer battle, Rogen was one of his best friends, so Rogen is essentially playing himself. There's no question that Rogen's real-life experience with a similar situation propels his performance, and this is perhaps career-best work. It's worth noting that Rogen delivered another one of his best performances in 2009's Funny People, another "cancer comedy." With 50/50, it appears that Seth Rogen Cancer Comedies can now officially be sanctioned as a legitimate and surprisingly solid movie genre.
Some subplots and supporting characters are more interesting and successful than others. Anna Kendrick is sweet and funny as Katherine, the grief counselor who is trying to help Adam surf through troubled waters. The film positions Katherine as a romantic interest, which, again, pushes the film into delusion: This shit doesn't happen with your doctor. Let it be said that if getting cancer means I get to be in the presence of a sweet thing like Kendrick, and she has a romantic interest in me, well, give me some cancer now.
Bryce Dallas Howard does OK as sucky-girlfriend Rachael, the requisite movie asshole who gives Adam a major emotional challenge to go with his physical challenges. Rachael's actions are reprehensible, but Howard plays the role with enough grace to keep her from becoming a caricature.
I found myself getting impatient with Adam's mother, portrayed by Anjelica Huston. For starters, her husband in the movie (played by Serge Houde) has Alzheimer's, and this continues the strange trend of "funny Alzheimer's guys" that started this year with Richard Jenkins in the Justin Timberlake vehicle Friends With Benefits. Huston's character is shrill and woefully predictable early on, but she sort of rallies by the film's finale.
The film resolves Adam's predicament in a way that is satisfying and charming. Levitt, as he proved in (500) Days of Summer, can break hearts by simply smiling onscreen. And as he was in Summer, he's an actor who is easy to root for in 50/50. Adam will remain one of 2011's most memorable and likable characters. Couple this with his crazy-dark performance in this year's equally enjoyable Hesher (which had a limited release and is available on home video now), and you will see that Levitt is one of the more versatile actors of his generation. He also scores major points by shaving his own head.
Rogen can get laughs, but he's also quite potent with the serious stuff. He's making some interesting career choices of late, as he manages some cool dramatic moments within the comfort zone of "dramedies." It'll be interesting to see if he tries a straight-up drama one of these days. I think he's fully capable.
Yes, there are few foibles to go with the pleasantries in this movie—but the Levitt/Rogen chemistry overpowers the film's weaknesses like chemotherapy blasting cancer cells.