Review: '50/50'

(Three stars)

In the last 15 years or so, cancer memoirs have become de rigueur, in straight prose and even graphic-novel format (Brian Fies' "Mom's Cancer," Harvey Pekar's "Our Cancer Year"). Now the movies have gotten into the act by way of "50/50," a cancer comedy for twentysomethings.

Of course, the disease is hardly new to the big screen, but it's rarely been employed in ways that offer comfort or, indeed, respect to those living with cancer. Too often it's the plot device to sideswipe a character and prime a tragic, "weepy" ending. Though the title quotes even odds, writer Will Reiser is himself a cancer survivor; however this semi-autobiographical story may end, it at least comes with the guarantee that it knows whereof it speaks.

That's good news for millions of people touched by cancer who wouldn't mind seeing an honest reflection of their experiences. Reiser lays out a colorful spectrum of emotional reactions, from bitterness to calm to stage-four freakout to love and gratitude for a true-blue support network. Like his creator, 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers he's developed a spinal cancer, specifically a neurofibroma sarcoma schwannoma (sorry, though the affliction does become the subject of wordplay, no chorus of "My Schwannoma").

Another cancer, another character sideswiped? Sure, but "50/50" isn't interested in defeatism, except as one inevitable way station of the film's appealing emotional ramble. Gordon-Levitt excels here, partly as an amusingly deadpan straight man to Seth Rogen (playing a version of himself as Adam's best bud Kyle) and Anjelica Huston (lovable as Adam's demonstrative mother) but more importantly as an Everyman navigating his mortality.

Adam begins as an overly cautious individual (while jogging on empty streets, he slavishly obeys "WALK" signals), but as his illusions of order crumble, he allows himself to indulge his emotions and cross behavioral boundaries. His new attitudes emerge partly from the spectacular flameout of his relationship with girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard); pleased-as-punch Kyle insists that cancer is a sure-fire hook for the ladies, a premise Adam reluctantly tests.

Meanwhile, our hero develops complicated feelings for the one woman who's unattainable, the 24-year-old psychotherapy grad student (Anna Kendrick's Katherine) assigned to be his counselor. It's textbook transference, but on the other hand, Katherine is pretty, endearingly earnest and emotionally accessible, if not -- ethically speaking -- available.

Though real-life friends Reiser and Rogen (also a producer here) have described the project as a hard sell, it's hard to imagine why: It's a movie for anyone who's ever been afraid of death or, y'know, life. They and director Jonathan Levine ("The Wackness") may be navigating a minefield, but they never act like it, retracing Reiser's path freely and mostly nimbly. The film is least credible in its romantic subplot, but with actors like Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick, we're hard pressed to care.

"50/50" proves winningly humane as a carpe diem comedy designed to remind us, gently but not genteelly, that what matters most is being true to one another and ourselves.

Rated R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use. 1 hour, 40 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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