Serious as cancer

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

It´s a cancer film; no getting around it. But the tender and funny 50/50 addresses its protagonist’s health crisis and chances for survival directly, with a refreshing lack of narrative hemming, hawing or embroidery, so that it becomes something more: a picture with a commercial sensibility and a quippy streak, yet one honest enough to transcend the usual.

While writing for Da Ali G Show, writer and producer Will Reiser, not yet 25, contracted a rare form of cancer that manifested itself as a potentially lethal tumor creeping along his spinal column. His Ali G friends and cohorts included Seth Rogen and Ben Karlin, a young veteran of The Onion.

Years later, Reiser turned his experience into a fictionalized but plainly personal first screenplay. After several more years of script development with Rogen, Karlin and their fellow Ali G alum Evan Goldberg, out came 50/50, directed by Jonathan Levine.

Levine’s previous feature was The Wackness, which was slick but borderline insufferable. He redeems himself here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a sweet, somewhat forlorn Seattle resident who works for the local public radio affiliate. His artist lover (Bryce Dallas Howard) may not be the warmest or most honest woman on the planet, but once Adam’s diagnosed and begins to wall himself off from his own panic-stricken situation, she’s sort of in there, being sort of supportive. For a little while.

Reiser’s script primarily concerns how Adam and his best friend and fellow public radio staffer, played by Rogen, receive the C-word news separately and together. Once he’s free of his weaselly ex, Adam is officially single, and Rogen’s Kyle smells an opportunity. “Help me help you get laid!” he says, knowing that his own chances for romantic success might improve if he can get Adam on board. This side of 50/50 has the makings of a cheap, broad, black comedy. But what Reiser, Levine and company have found instead — a modest film of surprisingly deft mood swings — lasts a little longer.

While Howard can’t make much of her role, the story accommodates two other gratifying female portrayals, both more nuanced than they appear at first. In her opening scene, Anna Kendrick seems to be doing a virtual reprise of her naive, by-the-book hotshot from Up in the Air. Gradually, though, her role here, that of a therapist assigned to help Adam through whatever comes, allows her to calm down and connect honestly with Gordon-Levitt (who has a firm handle on Adam’s guarded, gently fatalistic qualities). Anjelica Huston — who, as Adam’s formidable mother, causes fusses and anxiety so she can swoop in and make things better, or at least “better,” — makes the most of one woman’s push-pull responses to her son’s condition. Dealing with an Alzheimer’s-addled husband, this character has been in caretaker mode so long she can barely remember what came before it. “I want you to know,” Huston says at one vulnerable point, regarding her character’s son, “I smother him because I love him.” The film might work without such moments. Some of it’s schematic and on the nose. But the grace notes are what make 50/50 better than simply “good enough.”

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: