“50/50” Makes Dying a Laughing Matter

Hair today, gone tomorrow: Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left) gets through cancer with the support of his loudmouthed friend Kyle (Seth Rogen).

Dying young is no laughing matter.

Except in the case of 50/50, an awkward, heartfelt and extremely funny picture directed by Jonathan Levine, from a script by Will Reiser that has the rough, pants-kicking sting of real life at its (slightly compromised) core. Reiser, a television writer for Da Ali G Show as well as assorted dreck like Garage Band Makeover, was diagnosed with a rare, operable form of cancer in his early 20s. His best friend during this ordeal was the kind of slovenly loudmouth that you’d usually find played in a Hollywood movie by Seth Rogen.

Wait, scratch that. Because Reiser’s best friend really was Seth Rogen, who always seems to turn up in movies as some sort of variation of himself in the first place, and now does so for real this time as Kyle, an Army-jacket clad, slob-ovian with a taste for weed and terrible jokes. Rogen’s an actor with a very limited range and extremely wide appeal—his basso-profundo line readings never fail to send me into giggling fits, often regardless of context. (Yes, I even laughed at The Green Hornet .)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, an uptight, nail-biting everyman producer at a Seattle public radio station. Lacking a driver’s license as well as a good many social graces, Adam leans on his larger-than-life buddy Kyle (Rogen) for rides to work and a fair amount of terrible advice, typically involving shower masturbation or other topics better left unsaid. Theirs is the kind of easy-to-hang-with, tough-to-explain friendship that’s lasted a lifetime, but doesn’t make much sense from the outside looking in.

It’s especially puzzling to Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard with even more brittle haterade than she brought to her recent, lip-smacking super-villain role in The Help. She’s a phony would-be artist in a go-nowhere relationship with Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, and initial arguments about bathroom etiquette are obviously no match for an impending cancer diagnosis. 50/50 falters hard in these opening reels, as a tougher, braver movie would have offered some empathy for Howard’s status. What do you do when a causal fling suddenly involves chemotherapy? When is it suddenly not socially acceptable to cut your losses and bolt?

To my great disappointment, 50/50 floors it right over this particular speed-bump and resigns the girlfriend role to that of a cheating, easily dismissible hussy. Sure, it’s great fun to watch best buddy Rogen employ all manners of exotic profanity, calling her out on transgressions. But it’s also way too easy.

The movie gets better as it goes along. Shy, withdrawn Adam, played quite close to the vest by the always dependable Gordon-Levitt, lacks an emotional output as he wrestles with life and death. Enter Anna Kendrick’s novice therapist, Katherine. She’s fresh out of college and fumbling with her first patient in that hyper-attentive, Type A fashion that Kendrick has a knack for making adorable. Exceedingly well-cast, 50/50 is nothing if not great at letting up-and-coming movie stars play directly to their strengths.

This means that Gordon-Levitt gets to quietly internalize his anger and confusion, one day a healthy young man all of the sudden tossed into a medical, procedural machine that offers little empathy or understanding. He’s aghast at being shrunk down to a statistic, and his odds for survival give the movie its unfortunate title.

But despite Adam’s strained relationship with his over-attentive mother (Anjelica Houston) the real caretaker here is Rogen, whose character might be called Kyle but in all honesty should just be named “Seth.” Every bit the fumbling class clown, he’s also got a shabby nobility that comes through when the chips are down. The movie is best when illustrating what it’s like when the last person you expected to be of any help turns out to be the only one who is there for you.

Levine, who most recently helmed the disarming early-90s nostalgia piece The Wackness, is a bit too slick for comfort. The last thing this movie needed were sad-face montages cut to Radiohead songs. He at least knows how to stay out of the way long enough to let a very talented cast shine, and Rogen’s fundamental, unexpected decency, which can often only be expressed through shoulder-punching obscenities, grows more quietly moving as the picture wears on.

“Did you ever see Terms Of Endearment?” Gordon-Levitt asks Houston, in a terrible conversational attempt to prepare her for his diagnosis. That shaggy, laughing-through-the-tears M.O. of James L. Brooks’ cable classic is obviously what 50/50 is striving for. Sometimes it even gets there.

Grade: B+
Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

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