By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Knowing that 50/50 gets its title from a cancer patient's odds of survival might turn off people who don't see movies to get depressed. Finding out that Seth Rogen plays the patient's supportive friend certainly could turn off viewers, after he did the same thing for Adam Sandler in that terrible flop Funny People.
Don't let such preconceptions steer you away from 50/50, a movie nimbly walking the high wire between comedy and tragedy. It's the movie Funny People wishes it had been; a realistic look at how a medical death sentence could be handled by a person too young and hip to die. There is humor in each scene, not always of the gallows type. There is uplift, and it doesn't feel phony.
50/50 is scripted by Will Reiser, a TV producer who lived through cancer to tell something close to his story. In real life, Rogen was there for him, cracking jokes to avoid crying. Much of the interaction between Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, stepping in for Reiser, is lifted directly from real life. 50/50 reinvents the disease-of-the-week movie the way (500) Days of Summer did romantic comedies, with modern irony and appealing cool.
Gordon-Levitt starred in the latter film, and brings similar vibes to the role of Adam, a 27-year-old radio producer who's an unlikely candidate to die. He jogs for health and waits at crosswalks for cars to pass. He even recycles, as Adam explains to the doctor giving him bad news. There's a tumor growing on his spine. Maybe it can be arrested with treatment, maybe it can't. 50-50.
Rogen plays Kyle, the typical Rogen role of blowhard buddy although tamed a bit and made richer by his personal connection to Reiser. Kyle reminds me of my best friend T-Bone, someone who would believe keeping it real, having fun, would somehow will away any disease. Or at least make final days bearable. Flirt with women, catch a buzz or a fish, just live.
Adam resists most of the suggestions, becoming more depressed as reality sinks in. But Gordon-Levitt never makes him morose. He aims passive-aggressive wisecracks at people and situations; the mother (Anjelica Huston) who wants to smother, an inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick) and her techniques, a girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who thinks buying Adam a dog will make things better.
Everyone wants to help but only Kyle and two radical chemotherapy patients (Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer) do the right things, catering to Adam's attitude until the inevitable fallout among friends. Then comes the scene when Adam truly realizes how much Kyle cares, set in a bathroom of all places, and 50/50 crystallizes its crude bromance. Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) constantly seeks those moments that could be maudlin and sends them in another direction.
50/50 is sentimental but never too much. Not with this cast. It's irreverent about cancer and that could be inspirational. And it's surely one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen all year.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.