You know what’s killing Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the poor bastard facing even odds of survival in the unlikely cancer comedy 50/50? That is, besides his malignant spinal tumor, discovered only after the fit twentysomething finally sees a doctor about his persistent backache? Adam’s awful, cheating, manipulative girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), that’s what: She may be hot and artsy, but she’s really toxic. You know who else is eating away at our suffering hero’s guts? His smothering, worrying mother (Anjelica Huston), who makes everything about her, even her son’s illness. Yeesh. And don’t get me started on Adam’s oncologist (Andrew Airlie), an insensitive physician with cartoonishly terrible communication skills who should never, ever be allowed to deliver a diagnosis to a patient. Both in their behavior and as movie stereotypes, these guys are the worst!
Fortunately, a couple of crucial allies help Adam in his fight against disease — and 50/50 in its fight against bulls—. First among them is Kyle (Seth Rogen). The earthy, bighearted, trash-talking dude is not only the patient’s best friend, but Rogen is also one of the movie’s producers, with a big emotional stake in the picture: The project was inspired by the real-life diagnosis and treatment of comedy writer Will Reiser, an old friend of Rogen and his producing partner Evan Goldberg. Reiser himself wrote the 50/50 screenplay, directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness). But it’s the Rogen-Goldberg touch, with the duo’s characteristic Superbad mash of the sweet and the bracingly coarse, that sells this unusual downer/upper of a life-and-death comedy.
Kyle may be boorish in his insistence that getting laid is the right prescription for anything that ails a male: A Kyle-style therapy session involves dragging his buddy to a bar and playing up Adam’s weakened appearance to the ladies as a sympathy-sex selling point. (The ploy works like a charm, with Kyle also scoring as the guy who’s such a good, sensitive friend to the chemo-bald.) But the braying Kyle has got the right instincts for calling Adam’s girlfriend out on her cheating ways, and for keeping his pal looking forward, even when there’s nothing to see ahead except uncertainty — even when the patient declares, ”I look like Voldemort.”
Adam’s other angel, and 50/50’s MVP, is Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young therapist-in-training whose inexperience is offset by her tonic emotional transparency, a vulnerability that breaks through her attempts at a grown-up demeanor. Kendrick rightfully scored an Oscar nomination in 2010 for playing another comically brisk young professional, opposite George Clooney, in Up in the Air. Here, she adds a shimmer of endearing tenderness to her portrayal of a woman slightly terrified by the very situation she has trained for, the counseling of the sick. Even administering the right physical touch of reassurance is a matter of trial and error, and Kendrick brings an irresistible combination of understatement, intelligence, and comic precision to the act of laying a hand on Adam’s arm. The result is a duet of outstanding loveliness between Kendrick and Gordon-Levitt, also an actor of nuanced control.
50/50 sends Adam into chemotherapy as a first course of treatment. (Reiser himself went directly to surgery.) Rather than waiting to lose his hair as a drug side effect, he proactively shaves his head, with energetic expressions of faux horror and real fascination from Kyle. But chemo also puts Adam in the company of other men hooked up to poison drips. One is old and crusty (Philip Baker Hall), the other is middle-aged and serene about his grim prognosis (Matt Frewer). The disconcerting sight of young Adam sitting on death row delivers part 1 of the one-two punch the filmmakers have in mind. Part 2 comes when Rogen and Kendrick fill 50/50 with healthy laughter. B+