The odds given a cancer patient in "50/50" also reflect the balance struck between comedy and drama in a movie that takes on a difficult subject. Much of the comedy feels forced, but its dramatic underpinnings will have you hoping that this patient makes it.
Based on screenwriter Will Reiser's own bout with cancer, "50/50" certainly understands the physical and psychological ramifications of its topic. The protagonist, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a 27-year-old producer at a public radio station in Seattle. He doesn't smoke, drink, eat to excess or do anything else that he figures would result in a diagnosis of cancer. Also on the healthy side of the ledger, he exercises and, he points out with a smile, he recycles in a city that's known for thinking green.
Reiser's perceptive script and Gordon-Levitt's sensitive performance convey the shock and denial that Adam feels upon hearing that a sore back is actually a spinal tumor. The cold efficiency of the doctor giving Adam the bad news also comes across with bracing verisimilitude. "50/50" takes Adam and the viewer through the various stages of response that a patient is likely to have in this situation.
The arduous cancer treatments also take a toll on those family members and friends who feel blindsided by this sudden change in Adam's life. Taking care of Adam essentially becomes a test of who will care for him and who will bail out. In that respect, it's not always a pretty picture in various ways.
Adam's girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), is an artist who frankly seems more interested in selling her abstract paintings than in caring for him. She expresses concern and goes through the motions of taking him to medical appointments, but it's clear that his needs are hindering her career ambitions.
The script's depiction of Rachael is so stridently negative that it nearly pushes her into stock movie villain territory. It's an early warning sign of Reiser's tendency to push his realistic material into distorted overstatement.
The failed romantic relationship with Rachael ironically facilitates a quasi-romantic relationship with Katherine (Anna Kendrick), the young and inexperienced medical therapist whose counseling sessions with Adam quickly take on a personal dimension. Katherine's borderline-unprofessional response to her patient is presented in a funny and literally touching manner, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that it's just plain wrong.
Although it's not unprecedented for a paid caregiver to become something more to a patient, "50/50" barely acknowledges the medical ethics involved here. Adam is sick, Katherine is caring, they make a cute couple, and that's that.
Perhaps the evolving romantic friendship between Adam and Katherine is not worth troubling your conscience, because "50/50" is a bromance and not a romance. Adam's strongest emotional connection is with his radio station colleague and best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), whose slacker dude attitude seems like an overly familiar character type to interject into this particular story.
Having Kyle around proves to be a very mixed blessing in terms of the movie's health. He supplies much of the script's comedy, as he tries to boost Adam's spirits by pushing the chemotherapy-bald cancer patient into nightclub dating situations. Ever the happy hedonist, Kyle is also happy to partake of the medical marijuana. There are a number of funny scenes along the way, and Kyle definitely does lift the movie's spirits.
However, these scenes tend to coast on the bromance chemistry found in more conventional comedies. The specific challenges presented by a cancer diagnosis are smoothed over when Reiser's script and Jonathan Levine's slick direction transform the experience into a feel-good exercise determined to keep the audience from ever getting truly depressed about a frankly depressing scenario.
Under these cinematic circumstances, it might be best simply to go with the movie's assumption that laughter is the best medicine — along with a therapist who drives you home from appointments at no extra charge.
Whatever you make of the romance and the bromance that together get Adam through this experience, there is much to enjoy in a movie that's at least trying to emotionally come to terms with a tough situation. There's also much to enjoy in the sharp casting that makes relatively minor characters seem like they have more screen time than they actually do.
Philip Baker Hall is delightfully crusty as a cancer patient dispensing blunt advice to Adam; and Anjelica Huston gives a terrific performance as Adam's domineering mother. Adam really does have a great support network. Grade: B
"50/50" (R) is now playing at area theaters.