50/50 (2011) (***1/2)
A 27-year-old man is out jogging early in the morning. He stops for a traffic light. There are no cars in sight. Another runner races past him and crosses the intersection against the hand. The young man waits. He doesn’t drive or smoke or drink. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would get a rare form of spine cancer.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, INCEPTION) is this young man. Jonathan Levine’s film opens in this seemingly innocuous way, but it says a lot about Adam who doesn’t speak about how he feels about having a 50/50 chance of survival. He doesn’t really like to be consoled or coddled or even touched… at least by strangers. When asked how he is feeling he usually replies that he is okay.
For a film about a person who internalizes, this dramedy has a great deal of emotion running through it. It’s not just about Adam’s reaction or lack there of, but the reaction of those around him. His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen, KNOCKED UP) is freaked out by it at first, but tries to help by using the cancer to get girls and score medical marijuana. His goal is to make everything seem as normal as it can be. Adam’s girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, THE HELP) seems torn. She is selfish with her support. Adam tells her right from the start that he understands if she wants to bail, but she stays… she can’t be “that girl.” Adam’s mom Diane (Anjelica Huston, THE ROYAL TENEBAUMS) wants to mother (or smother) her son. His reaction is to ignore her phone calls.
Adam is sent to meet with a counselor. Katherine (Anna Kendrick, UP IN THE AIR) has only had two patients before him, which doesn’t really elicit confidence in him. She is green, but has a good heart. Her approach is warm, but scholarly. Adam and she are feeling each other out. And it doesn’t always work. But unlike others in his life she does appear to genuinely care.
Gordon-Levitt gives one of his best performances in a role that demands a great deal of subtlety. He never says what he is feeling, but you still understand it in context. He goes through stages of coping with the reality of having something that could kill him. But he doesn’t want to be analyzed like a test subject or babied like a child or used to make others feel better about themselves. Coupled with Kendrick, they make for an interesting dynamic. Their relationship is professional with the sweet hint of something more.
As for the others, Rogen plays his go-to man-boy character. But there are things that he is keeping inside as well. Howard is given a thankless role. Her character is fairly transparent, but she gives her nuance. When she says to Adam that she doesn’t want to go into the hospital with him because she doesn’t want to mix the negative with the positive energy, we know where this is headed.
Adam has a chance to find laughs in his disease with his chemo buddies Mitch (Matt Frewer, THE STAND) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall, MAGNOLIA). They are just one part of the human comedy that Will Reiser brings to the script. Much humor comes from the awkwardness between the doctor-in-training Katherine and the newly sick Adam. Also a cellphone picture brings the right kind of humorous justice to a terrible moment.
There have been a lot of films about people getting sick, but few have the warmth, humor and insight that this one has. Disease affects more than the sufferer and that is sometimes the toughest part for the sufferer to handle. 50/50 is like if Judd Apatow combined TERMS OF ENDEARMENT with ORDINARY PEOPLE.