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3 reviews, 4 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"Who Said Cancer Can't Be Funny?"
4 stars

Cancer is no laughing matter. Anyone who has lived with it or lived through someone facing the symptoms and aftermath of trying to fight it will tell you that it is rather hard to jock up humor in the worst moments. On the other hand, the best of those who understand what is funny will tell you that anything can be laughed at or with while others will remind us about the healing power of laughter. Hearing the words "cancer comedy" laid out as a potential fun night at the movies is still liable to cause winces first and possible outrage later. Make no mistake though, Jonathan Levine's 50/50 is not just another crude piece of mockery. Crude at times, yes, but at its occasionally uneven soul is a very funny and bluntly moving tale of living within the fringes of potential death.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27 year-old radio segment creator in Seattle. Careful to the point of even paying attention to "Don't Walk" signs, he doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and is getting serious with his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). Back pains send him to the doctor though and when the results come back, he discovers he was a rare form of spinal cancer and his chances for survival could go either way. His best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen) is sickened by the news while Adam's mom (Anjelica Huston) just wants to take care of her boy. Adam even gives Rachael "an out" to not sign up for what's to come, but she vows to stick by his side as the chemotherapy begins.

It soon becomes clear that Adam's road is paved with nausea, fatigue and even a lapsed sexual drive. Kyle hopes to help him in this area by taking him out and finding a way to use his illness to their advantage in picking up women. Few of them (and this is true) can resist a nicely sculpted bald head. Freudian concerns notwithstanding, Adam is also assigned a therapist in Katie (Anna Kendrick). She is three years his junior and as just her third patient, Adam discovers she is part of a training school and also just doing her best to get by. Katie still hasn't learned therapy's trick of letting the patient figure out their own answers and that the simple human act of a comforting hand can actually be uncomfortable at worst and suggestive at best.

The key to growing comfortable with 50/50 is to understand that this is not a film about dying. We have seen all the usual weepies where the end is a foregone conclusion; even the ones not written by Nicholas Sparks. (Adam even evokes the name of one in trying to reveal his illness at the dinner table.) We have also seen the kind where that fatal knowledge leads to living one's life to the fullest and appreciating what you have before its gone. (The Bucket List being the most evil of these cheer fests.) Will Reiser's debut script though is definitively more about that middle ground where living each day is the expected norm and the struggles we carry with it are simply that. Real life does not end instantaneously with a bad diagnosis and we do not resort to flights of fancy or emptying our bank accounts to pursue every long lost dream. We move forward like we are going to live. Because we want to live.

It would be very easy for 50/50 to take such a gimmicky approach to a young man seeing his life potentially cut short or to philosophically explore every last meaning and regret. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a nicely, even-keeled performance in this regard, equally content and frustrated with the turn his life has taken and wisely takes the approach where exhaustion always overcomes histrionics. Seth Rogen has already had some experience with a disease-stricken pal in Funny People (and he's also a producer on the film), but here refashions the role as if his Knocked Up character was the sidekick. Until 50/50 reveals itself as the kind of laid back disease dramedy it wants to be, without the scene-stealing Rogen audiences might feel it would have just been another low-budget indie drama. Rogen is our conduit in feeling OK to laugh, and his work, while seemingly in the same comic comfort zone he has perpetrated with Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith, fills that necessary bridge that is as important to us as it is to Adam. The true sunshine of the story though is Anna Kendrick's work as the all-too-human and insecure therapist. It is the sort of wonderfully nuanced performance (as her Oscar-nominated work in Up In The Air) that proves she should be getting more than just the occasional second banana role in geek films from Twilight to Scott Pilgrim. Kendrick's Katie is the one to fall in love with and Levine nicely navigates the relationship between her and Adam so as not to feel like the obligatory key to all his problems.

Jonathan Levine was responsible for the still-unreleased All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (a solid horror film that served as the launching pad for Amber Heard.) His previous film was the Sundance entry, The Wackness, an overtly hip and nostalgic yukfest remembered mostly for Ben Kingsley's wacky performance as a pot-smoking therapist. 50/50 feels infinitely more genuine, never overreaching on the vulgarity and respecting the situation of its characters even if it never goes full tilt on the negative aspects. For every occasional scene that doesn't work (i.e. Adam's reveal to Rachael and his obligatory anger-directed-at-the-wrong-person act-bridge scene) there are two that do. Particularly a ride home given to Adam by Katie and a perfect comic bit between Kendrick, Rogen and Huston in the hospital. Gordon-Levitt is especially good in the scenes leading up to his big surgery and we understand that it has been his restraint, along with that of Levine's and Reiser's, that add a great deal of emotional power to those moments. 50/50 is not laughing at cancer, nor is it laughing with it. But it knows that the laughter must go on, whether it be as a distraction or a vice of optimism that life can go on too.

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originally posted: 09/30/11 03:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/07/14 David Hollingsworth works as a comedy and a drama 5 stars
10/03/11 Kim Kelly JGL was great, surprisingly sweet & funny, not as sad as you'd think 4 stars
10/01/11 Jenna Solis Finally A Movie About Cancer that doesn't Make it so depressing instead making the most 4 stars
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  30-Sep-2011 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jan-2012


  DVD: 24-Jan-2012

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