PLOT: Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have it all. Only twenty-seven, he has a good job, and a cute girlfriend, and is happy. Suddenly, his world in thrown into turmoil, when he's diagnosed with an aggressive form of spinal cancer, that offers only a fifty-fifty chance of survival. His girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard) can't deal, leaving him in the care of his happy-go-lucky best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), as he goes through chemotherapy, and comes to term with his possibly terminal illness.
REVIEW: Cancer's a pretty tough subject for a comedy. Anyone remember FANBOYS? The cancer subplot to that film worked so poorly, it almost got excised completely, and unless you're golden-age James L. Brooks (who's TERMS OF ENDEARMENT is name checked here), it's probably best to leave it alone. However, I'm pleased to report that not only does 50/50 work, but for the most part it works brilliantly.
Astoundingly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost didn't end up playing the lead, which seems tailor made for him. James McAvoy was originally signed before dropping out, and while I'm sure he would have done a fine job, this is a powerhouse for Levitt, who I think deserves some award consideration for his role here. He's terrific as the quiet, easygoing Adam, who even the most cynical viewer will like right from the first shot, where he hesitates to jay-walk, just on the one-in-a-million chance that a car comes along and clips him.
Inspired (but not directly based) on the experiences of Will Reiser, having the cancer patient be twenty-seven is unusual, as young men are not typically the kind of cancer patient portrayed, but alas, cancer knows no prejudice. Levitt's Adam keeps a brave face and a good attitude throughout, but at the same time, we see how he struggles everyday with the uncertainty his disease brings him. Still, he manages to keep his cool, until a cathartic emotional scene late in the film that is deeply affecting, and perfectly acted by Levitt- who really needs to be considered an A-list leading man from now on.
Levitt gets able support from all-around, with Seth Rogen having a key part as Adam's supportive best friend, who tries to keep his buddy sane (and high-HIGH- with lots of medicinal marijuana playing a part) throughout, establishing a pity-free relationship, which is what anyone caught in a similar circumstance would need. This is Rogen's best role in a long time, and one that plays to all of his strengths. He's funny, but in a loose, not-over the top funny face kind of way, and it's the kind of role someone like John Belushi or John Candy could have played in their prime.
Anna Kendrick from UP IN THE AIR is on-board as Adam's therapist/love interest, who takes him on as her first patient, but finds herself drawn into his struggle, being someone with whom she has so much in common. Kendrick is sweet, and makes an appealing love interest. Angelica Huston also has a gem of a role as Adam's overbearing mother, who also has an Alzheimer’s afflicted husband to deal with. This role initially comes off as a tad cartoonish, but later in the film, we get another perspective, and by the end, I was convinced that if the film hits like it should, she could find herself nominated for best supporting actress. Philip Baker Hall also has a fantastic part, opposite Max Headroom-himself, Matt Frewer, as Adam's fellow, foul-mouthed cancer patient, who introduces him to the pleasure of hash cookies.
The only part in 50/50 that comes off a tad one-note is Howard as Levitt's transparent girlfriend, who we know is going to bail right from the first frame. She's a little too shrewish, but even she gets a nice scene towards the end that gives her character a little nuance.
50/50 could have be a remarkably sad film, but luckily director Jonathan Levine (who did THE WACKNESS) has a light enough touch that it never gets to that point- neither does it get maudlin, although don't be surprised if you let go of a few tears towards the end. I had a lump in my throat the last twenty-minutes. It's really the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy, and among the top-tier of films I've been lucky enough to catch at this year's TIFF. It's a wonderful film, and one that deserves to be appreciated.