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50/50 (2011)

October 16, 2011

written by: Will Reiser
produced by: Evan Goldberg, Ben Karlin & Seth Rogen
directed by: Jonathan Levine
rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use)
runtime: 100 min. 
U.S. release date: September 30, 2011
Writer Will Reiser is a cancer survivor. He is also a friend and frequent collaborator with actor Seth Rogen, and both decided Reiser’s story should be adapted into a movie. Together, with co-producer Evan Goldberg, they made an endearing and honest portrayal of life with cancer. It examines the many stages one who is stricken with the disease goes through, such as grief, anger, depression, and fear. “50/50” covers the subject in a delicate and unpretentious way, delivering a movie that is both emotional and funny. 

Wait, what’s so funny about cancer? Well, nothing. Absolutely nothing. What can be funny is the way people respond to cancer, those who have it and those who interact with those who have it. From friends and family to co-workers and random encounters, there can be a wide range of reactions to the disease. Many of them are so absurd they’re funny. That’s some of what we get from director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”), who deftly balances the funny with the drama, as he works with a fantastic cast that manages to navigate the material far from a movie-of-the-week feel.

Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the Reiser role) is the kind of guy who has to have every part of his life in order. His apartment is immaculate, he exercises, and he holds down a steady job at a Seattle public radio station with his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen, playing the Seth Rogen role). He’s also very patient and kind to Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his cagey artist girlfriend. All this changes when he is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer after experiencing back pain, throwing any type of control out the window. 
After dealing with a doctor possessing an awful bedside manner, Adam tried to cope with such life-altering news. At first, he does so without making too big of a deal out of it. It doesn’t help that slacker Kyle is continuously trying to take him out and get him laid, or that his overbearing mother (a great Anjelica Houston) can’t stop worrying about him, or that Rachael doesn’t seem to do well with taking care of him. 
It’s bad enough Adam isn’t sure how much life he has left, but he now seeks treatment, he’s going to have to ask for help. But like anything else he’s tackled in life, Adam moves forward. 

During his chemotherapy, Adam meets two older men who befriend him, Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), who come across as cancer veterans. Taking each day as it comes, with the help of Mitch’s wife’s “special brownies”. These are truly wonderful scenes. Adam also seeks therapy as part of his treatment and is matched up with Katie (a wonderful Anna Kendrick), an earnest 24 year-old student doctor, who is painfully green.  At first, Adam sees right through her unintentionally cold academic approach and resists her care. But there’s something about her that grows on him, maybe it’s her earnestness or genuine desire to do her job well. 
After awhile, Adam must come to terms with the fact that he has no control over life’s cruel turns, only the attitude in which he deals with them. His girlfriend leaving him is one way to put this to the test. With the cancer spreading and a dangerous surgery looming, Adam learns a few revelations about himself and the people in his life. He sees a side to Kyle he never knew, comes to understand and appreciate his mother more (who cares for his dementia-effected father), and finds himself reaching out to Katie in a way neither of them expected. 
“50/50” will likely be a movie that audiences are drawn to for its stars instead of the subject matter. With a cast like this, that’s an understandable draw. I experienced a noticeable wave of silence and then guffaws from the audience I was with. It seemed whenever Rogen was on-screen, the laughs were aplenty. Unfortunately, he’s the weakest link in a cast that otherwise plays their characters with a realistic approach. Like his role in “The Green Hornet” earlier this year, Rogen is stuck playing the obnoxious horndog here. He is Adam’s best friend, but that doesn’t mean he’s a great friend. Still, there are moments when we see Rogen’s Kyle actually act like a decent guy, responding to Adam’s new life situation in a natural way. Especially toward the end, when Adam learns more about Kyle, a caring and loyal side can finally be seen. If only this side could’ve been shown earlier on in the film, maybe Rogen’s portrayal wouldn’t have been so off-putting. 

One observation that can be made about Adam’s cancer is that it not only forces him to grow as an individual, but also causes change in those around him. Such a rich evolution offers the actors an opportunity to add some real weight to their roles. 

The film had a few other working titles, like “I’m With Cancer” and “Just Live It”, before arriving on the current one, which refers to the chances of survival Adam is given. Since Levine and company deliver a film that doesn’t shy away from the ups and downs of dealing with the disease, I would say its changes of surviving are strong. Viewers will actually find themselves leaving a dramedy about a young man stricken with cancer on a high note. 

RATING: ***          
5 Comments leave one →
  1. olieque permalink
    January 28, 2012 7:43 pm

    Finally saw this one today. Much better than I expected. I thought the humor was not overly done and was nicely balanced with the seriousness of the topic. Great soundtrack too! Glad this was one of your top choices of 2011. It is definitely one I would watch again.


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