When we first see Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he’s jogging down the sidewalk, only to stop at a red light. There isn’t a car to be seen, and another runner ignores the flashing hand and breezes past him. He’s soon shown taking his grand old time with his daily routines, and we later learn that he doesn’t have a driver’s license because car accidents are “the nation’s fifth leading cause of death.” Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), 50/50 is a film about the tragic obliteration of youthful, everyday normalcy, expressed via the troubles of a perfectly normal 27-year-old who burns away minutes and holds life at arm’s length before getting slapped with a rather grim cancer diagnosis. It’s just as much about a sick person’s vital need for a sturdy support network, which is destined to include the requisite friends and family as well as benevolent newfound confidants. The movie is far more successful in its execution of the young-man-meets-mortality element, bringing some well-considered verisimilitude to what’s made to feel like rare film territory (tapping into how a modern twentysomething might very well deal with news of having cancer, Adam’s tale doesn’t read like a Xerox of so many others). While intermittently moving and largely comprised of endearing characters, the circle-of-support aspect doesn’t fare as well, mainly due to the cacophonous presence of Seth Rogen, who, to be terribly frank, is this R-rated dramedy’s malignant tumor.
Loosely based on the experiences of the film’s screenwriter, Will Reiser, 50/50 was produced by Rogen, who, like co-producer Evan Goldberg, has been friends with Reiser since he beat cancer six years ago. Thinking of the filmmakers’ powwows, one envisions Rogen jumping to fill the role of Adam’s best friend, Kyle, a character whose vocabulary he jams with the same old vulgar, fanboy-meets-manboy improvisations we’ve been hearing from him since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Kyle’s a depressingly standard Rogen stereotype, a latter-day Stifler who references everyone from Michael Stipe to Frodo while bolstering American-male ignorance. In no universe would one suspect he’d be friends with Adam, whose sober, sensitive disposition isn’t even conducive to an odd-couple kind of chemistry. Had another actor been cast alongside Gordon-Levitt (who faithfully nails the necessary notes of an everyman stopped in his tracks), the film’s goal to be a male-friendly weepie surely wouldn’t have been so counterproductive. Undue comeuppances, like the ritualistic mutilation of a painting by Adam’s cheating-artist ex, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), are made even crueler, and revelations of devotion (Kyle reads cancer books, a la the pregnancy how-tos in Knocked Up) can’t muster even the slightest twinge.
The movie’s key rapport is between Adam and Dr. Katie McKay (Anna Kendrick), his assigned, novice therapist and inevitable love interest who anyone, including Adam’s ganja-macaroon-eating buddies in the cancer ward, could tell is a much better fit than Rachael. Though basically playing a lighter variation of her by-the-book go-getter from Up in the Air (50/50 is a small wellspring of typecasting), Kendrick further demonstrates her superb ability to find the comedy in individuals programmed for deadpan objectivity. She’s refreshingly authentic in her first real romantic role, and she proves almost as good a match for Gordon-Levitt as Zooey Deschanel did in (500) Days of Summer. Through Adam and Katie’s relationship, which gingerly evolves from “practitioner-recommended” taps on the arm to longing phone calls and so on, 50/50 tries for a minor indictment of doctor-patient bureaucracy, with Adam eventually taking his breaking-point frustrations out on Katie and thus the whole try-to-remain-calm system. The effort falls short of its target, as right on down to Adam’s under-defined inner turmoil (despite Gordon-Levitt’s performance, the strongest indicator of what Adam is truly feeling is a running volcano metaphor), 50/50 consistently chooses to forgo challenging drama in favor of comfy digestibility. Scenes with Adam, his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (Serge Houde), and his worrywart of a mother (Anjelica Huston) offer some sincere, tear-jerky emotional healing, but, barring the Rogenoma, this film could use a lot more affliction and a lot less cure.