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The Observer Reviews 50/50

Arts & Culture | October 23, 2011

There are certain topics comedy doesn’t touch. Cancer tends to fall near the top of the comedic “don’t” list. But perhaps we’ve been too quick to separate the subject from laughter, which is, after all, one of nature’s best remedies.

To poke fun at the stigma surrounding terminal illness is to chip away at its horror. Still, few have had the guts to test this idea out on the big screen, until Jonathan Levine.

Levine is the director of the new comedy-drama 50/50, which is based on a true story. As the tale of an unorthodox young cancer patient and his wayward best friend, 50/50 naturally takes a very unorthodox and wayward approach toward expressing what terminal illness means to us. Through the film, Levine and the movie’s stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen gallantly forgo traditional propriety to dispel cancer’s oppressive reputation, so that the rest of us don’t have to.

Gordon-Levitt portrays Adam Lerner, a young man who is shocked when he’s diagnosed with cancer. After telling his loved ones and therapist (Anna Kendrick) and coping with their various reactions, Adam and his best friend Kyle (Rogen) get themselves into a series of situations revolving around marijuana macaroons, an un-obliging  greyhound, and few sharp cancer jibes.

When I first saw that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen were set to star in a film together, I was skeptical. Gordon-Levitt usually comes off as a wholesome guy. From his whimsy in 500 Days of Summer, to the innocence of his role in 10 Things I Hate About You and the incredibly practical nature of his persona in Inception, he’s an actor the world loves to empathize with. He tends to play the same role over and over, but it’s a role that works for him. That natural sympathy really helps Adam’s diagnosis resonate with young people.

Rogen, on the other hand, is a man whose major roles have consisted of a pothead, a dim-witted cop, and a simpleton who somehow managed to knock up Katherine Heigl. Despite my skepticism about the match-up, I was surprised to find that he and Gordon-Levitt are actually a great pair. Their chemistry is mainly attributable to Rogen’s successful portrayal of a worried friend in half-serious setting. His character is deeper than usual, and Kyle’s efforts to get Adam laid create a subtle but noticeable chemistry between the pair; Rogen even gets to have a few one night pity-hookups.

Kendrick, who plays Adam’s psychologist, Katherine, definitely stood out in 50/50. Despite her less than sparkling role in the Twilight series, her performance here was solid and charming, and her scenes opposite Gordon-Levitt are some of the funniest and warmest of the film. There’s something subtly attractive about her smart, naïve, and unassuming persona that suits the role of an inexperienced psychiatrist working with her third patient ever.

Bryce Dallas-Howard and Anjelica Houston round out the film’s supporting cast as Adam’s girlfriend and mother respectively. Dallas-Howard gives a competent performance, though most of her comedy was generated by arguments with Rogen’s character and ultimately was uninspiring. Anjelica Houston’s role as the mother of a young cancer patient already supporting a husband with Alzheimer’s was striking, but it seemed a bit like an emotional arm-twister meant to drum up the college student’s sympathy for the mother “who only wants to be a part of your life.”

Despite the overall impressive acting and clever dialogue, 50/50’s plot wasn’t terribly original, although basing a movie on a true story can be limiting. At points, the film is cliché and trite. The story arc is predictably predictable. Still, the movie makes up for its lack of innovation with its sincerity and genuine humor. It doesn’t concern itself with political correctness, and it crosses some dangerous lines. But the humor is designed to interpret a real man’s real story, so for those willing to go from commercialized tears to chuckles and back again, 50/50 is worth the money and time spent on a viewing.