Director Jonathan Levine’s new comedy-drama is an ambitious undertaking, a heartfelt attempt at finding the difficult balance between the masks of comedy and tragedy. Based partially on the real-life struggle of writer Will Reiser and his relationship with pal Seth Rogen (who produces and stars), “50/50” tells the story of a young man diagnosed with cancer and forced to come to terms with his own mortality, something that would generally be relegated to movie-of-the-week or arthouse status. But Rogen’s inclusion, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead, in addition to a strong supporting cast elevates “50/50” to a level of exposure, scrutiny and commercial compromise that may ultimately be detrimental to the intended artistic expression of Reiser’s experience.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a healthy 27-year-old broadsided by the news that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. His chances of survival, as the title indicates, are 50/50. He first tells the news to his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a flighty, self-obsessed artist with little stomach for the messiness of reality. Adam’s best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), takes the news hardest, attempting to deflect his feelings with jokes and wisecracks. Adam’s mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), an overbearing busybody already dealing with her husband’s (and Adam’s father) Alzheimer’s, doesn’t really know how to handle the news. Adam takes refuge on the couch of fresh-from-school therapist named Katie (Anna Kendrick), who hasn’t yet experienced a case as complicated as Adam’s. Luckily, she’s also cute as a button.
You have to respect the idea behind “50/50,” which seems to come from a very true place. It’s that rarest of rare Hollywood releases focused on friendship over romance. Bromance, to use the modern parlance. But that friendship focal point takes a while to establish itself as the story’s key relationship and, once it does, often takes a backseat to a somewhat trite and forced budding romance between Adam and Katie. It’s not that we don’t buy their attraction for one another, but more that its inclusion is unnecessary and detracts from a story already struggling to establish a clear focus.
Adam’s friendship with Kyle is amusing and, to a large degree, believable. They act much the way you would expect two 20-something guys faced with such a situation would. They struggle to express emotion and deflect true feelings in favor of machismo put-downs and skirt chasing. The latter is primarily on Kyle’s part, who at one point in the film suggests that they use Adam’s cancer as a pickup line to draw sympathetic bar babes into bed. Little by little, Adam begins to discover that beneath Kyle’s jokey, sex-obsessed exterior, is a true friend willing to support his best bud through thick and thin. But there are far too few of these moments, almost as if the story itself is every bit as afraid to express its true feelings as Kyle and Adam are.
Rogen has proven in the past (most notably in “Funny People”) that he possesses chops beyond mere broad comedy. What’s surprising about Kyle is how one-note the character is. Rogen rarely reaches the emotional depths of past work with Apatow, instead falling into predictable self-caricature territory for the bulk of “50/50.” It’s only in the tale’s latter portion that Rogen displays any kind of true emotional depth. Gordon-Levitt delivers a largely genuine, layered performance. His character rides the emotional roller coaster one might expect from his situation — shock, depression, isolation and, most glaringly, anger. Adam has trouble expressing emotions and the cancer forces him to discuss (and at times lash out) about what he’s feeling. Clearly the flip side to Rogen’s strengths, Gordon-Levitt at times seems to be playing catchup to Rogen’s free-flowing comedic interplay, the straight man whether he likes it or not.
In the supporting cast, Bryce Dallas Howard steps away from the norm to play a genuinely reprehensible wench. She seems to have fun with the part and, well, does a fine job at crafting a character the audience will indeed despise. Huston’s role is small, but the legendary actress does what she does as well as ever. Finally, actress-on-the-rise Kendrick is just fine in the part and her smile continues to light up the screen.
This is not an easy story to tell by any means. Both Reiser’s script and Levine’s direction struggle with aim and avoiding cliche, a pitfall “50/50” falls into repeatedly. There are the sappy, predictable musical montages set to trite rock ballads while Adam watches from a window looking stoic and, of course, revelations and pontifications on the meaning and fragility of life. Levine aims high and comes close to his mark on occasion, but the often cringe-inducing near-misses outweigh the hits.
You really want to like “50/50,” but it’s impossible to deny that something is just missing. With a cast filled with such talented players, entertaining moments are sprinkled throughout and you get the feeling that, with a push or a prod in one direction or another and a clearer aim, it might just have hit its mark more often than it does. There are laughs to be had and even tugs at the heartstrings that may stir some, but too much is crammed into the tale and a too much is left unresolved. It seems likely that the fictionalization of Reiser’s tale might have been where things actually went wrong. Maybe if Rogen and Reiser had stuck closer to the story they knew, they would have been able to deliver a more truthful, satisfying piece. [B-]