‘50/50’ is a candid cancer comedy

Terms of endearment: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Terms of endearment: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

How impressive is “50/50,” a movie that could easily have wallowed in the weepiest clichés and pressed all the tear-jerking buttons, but foregoes them for something subtler and more honestly moving? Here, improbably, we have a comedy about a young man, fit and fastidiously health-conscious, floored by a cancer diagnosis and faced with even odds to survive.

He is Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Seattle radio producer who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and jogs in the mornings. (He also recycles.)

Still, he’s troubled by back pain, persistent enough to merit a checkup. The last thing he expects is a potential death sentence, one of those cancers with a name so long he can barely remember it.

“The more syllables it has, the worse it is,” a fellow patient helpfully explains, but Adam, still in shock, hasn’t begun to grasp the ramifications of his illness, physical and otherwise. Much as the chemo wears him down, so too do the pained glances from co-workers, his mother’s hysteria and the discomfort he senses in his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard).

 It’s easy to condemn her as callous, to make her the heavy in Will Reiser’s loosely autobiographical tragicomedy. (Reiser, who wrote and produced “50/50,” survived a bout with spinal cancer six years ago.) Yet her instinct to flee is at least understandable. Adam needs a caretaker more than a girlfriend, and she’s not up to the task.

If none of this sounds terribly funny, it isn’t  — laughter is the therapy Adam needs to dull the pain, to steel himself against the nausea, the exhaustion and the alienation that manifests itself in barely suppressed rage.

That’s where best friend Kyle comes in, using Adam’s sickness to pick up girls and generally behaving like a well-meaning clown.

Seth Rogen plays Kyle, and while the part isn’t a stretch from his usual on-screen persona — the casually irresponsible, cheerfully profane stoner buddy — there is a method to his silliness, and real feeling as well. His rapid-fire chatter is often painfully funny, and perfectly in keeping with the movie’s balanced mix of humor and agonizing drama.

That “50/50” resists going maudlin is a minor miracle, and a testament to Gordon-Levitt’s ability to invite sympathy without begging for it, as well as Reiser’s perceptive screenplay, which is tender in all the right places.

As Adam heads for surgery, aware that the anesthesia is lulling him into a slumber from which he might never awake, it’s easy to get a little misty-eyed, and the movie earns it.

MOVIE REVIEW

50/50 ★★★½

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard

Written by Will Reiser

Directed by Jonathan Levine

Rated R

Running time 1 hour 39 minutes

50/50artsentertainmentJoseph Gordon-LevittMovies

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Quarterback Nick Mullens is expected to get his third straight start Sunday. Mullens is 46 of 73 for 538 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in his other two starts this season. <ins>(Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner).</ins>
49ers trying to turn season around in Sunday’s prime-time faceoff with the Rams

49ers at Rams When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Where: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood TV:… Continue reading

Psilocybin magic mushrooms (Shutterstock)
‘Magic mushrooms’ moving into the mainstream

Efforts to decriminalize psychedelics could follow several different paths

Those who stick around San Francisco on long holiday weekends can enjoy a slower pace, uncrowded streets and beloved institutions like cable cars. <ins>(Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
These empty San Francisco streets: A holiday dream

We’re here because we can be, and because we have nowhere else to be

The 2020 Census has concluded taking responses sooner than expected. (Courtesy photo)
What does California have to lose if undocumented immigrants are excluded from the census?

By Kim Bojórquez The Sacramento Bee If The U.S. Supreme Court rules… Continue reading

It’s disheartening to see that Bill Graham Civic’s marquee isn’t announcing upcoming concerts. (Screenshot/Bill Graham Civic Twitter)
A cruise through The City with the ghosts of rides past

I take my time and don’t even mind the occasional traffic jams

Most Read