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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston, Bryce Dallas Howard
DIRECTED BY
Jonathan Levine
SCREENPLAY
Will Reiser
MPAA RATING
Rated R
RUNNING TIME
99 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Summit Entertainment
DVD EXTRAS
6-part "Making of"; Audio Commentary
 "50/50" Review 
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As someone who has always taken a good amount of harassment over my relentless use of humor as a coping skill in dealing with a body that can simultaneously be frustrating, humiliating and exasperating, it was with tremendous hope that I wheeled myself into the theatre to catch director Jonathan Levine's 50/50, a dramedy about Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young man who ends up with a rare form of cancer and a 50/50 shot at survival.

50/50 may not sound like a funny flick, but it's an extraordinarily funny flick thanks to the terrific chemistry between its co-leads Gordon-Levitt and Judd Apatow regular Seth Rogen, who portrays his best friend Kyle.

Adam doesn't drink or smoke. Adam recycles. Heck, he even works in the non-profit world for the local public radio station. But, when Adam starts experiencing excruciating back pain that won't go away he gets the news that changes everything.

Cancer.

Before you start comparing 50/50 to a certain other Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen flick that didn't quite gel (aka Funny People), let it be known that while there are thematic similarities there's simply no doubt that 50/50 is a vastly superior flick in virtually every way including an important one ... it's actually entertaining.

50/50 is very nearly the perfect dramedy, a winning blend of laugh out loud humor and remarkably touching and heartfelt moments that will make you laugh a lot, shed a few tears and leave the theatre feeling better than when you entered it.

As someone who has lived with a serious, life-threatening illness for most of my life, I laughed and wept at scene after scene that rang true with my own personal experiences ranging from the awkwardness of people who don't know what to say to the therapist who spews forth mind-numbingly inane psychobabble to, yes, the absolute joys of sympathy sex.

Sympathy sex is better than no sex.

I promise.

In the beginning, Adam is living sort of happily but mostly obliviously with his pretty but fairly shallow girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who tries to put on a terrific show of support but whose emotional make-up doesn't allow for things like hospitals or anything resembling negative energy. Fortunately for Adam, the same is not true with Kyle, whose methods for showing support and compassion may not be textbook but they may very well be exactly what Adam needs.

Speaking of textbook, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Twilight) shows up here as a doctoral student assigned to counsel Adam ... Or is it the other way around? Truthfully, Kendrick's Katherine really tries and Kendrick perfectly portrays her struggles as an inexperienced therapist stuck between her heart, her training and her dilemma. When it comes to meaning well, there's perhaps no greater example than that of Kyle's mother (Anjelica Huston). Taking on what could have easily been nothing more than a one-note performance, Huston gives one of her best performances in years as a woman who is already caring for a husband with dementia when she finds out that her 27-year-old son has been diagnosed with cancer. There are scenes between Gordon-Levitt and Huston that are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious and, perhaps most appropriately, they provide lessons to both those living with illness and those who love them.

Ultimately, 50/50 is carried by the outstanding performances of both Gordon-Levitt and Rogen. While we've come to expect good things from Gordon-Levitt given recent performances in such films as Mysterious Skin and (500) Days of Summer, Rogen's performance is truly revelatory. Everything glorious that should have happened in Funny People happens here, with Rogen embodying the sort of stoner buddy that he's perfected on-screen but doing so in a way he's never captured. Rogen's Kyle is hilarious, honest, sincere, vulnerable and brilliantly present. Hollywood has obviously had a clue that Rogen had something in him besides gross-out comedy given his casting in the films Funny People and Observe and Report, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who believed he could truly be this good.

Rogen's Kyle is the kind of friend I want by my side when my health finally starts getting worse and, once again, there's this absolutely awesome scene where Adam finally realizes that there's more beneath Kyle's humor than he'd ever realized. It's a simple, touching and quietly funny scene that you simply won't forget.

Gordon-Levitt has, at least on a couple occasions, gone a bit too histrionic and over the top when he tackles larger than life. Havoc, anyone? Yet, there are few better actors in his generation working in Hollywood today and 50/50 is yet another potentially award-winning notch on his cinematic bedpost. Of all Gordon-Levitt's performances, this one steers most closely to that in the marvelous romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer. Gordon-Levitt embodies Adam with just the right touches of fear, vulnerability, anger, grief, hope, humor and determination and turns it all into one of 2011's first truly award-worthy performances.

If there's one quibble with the film, and there is one, it's with one of the ways in which 50/50 is resolved between Katherine and Adam that feels a tad cliche'd and uncomfortable in a film that is otherwise filled to the brim with so much naturalism and authenticity. Fortunately, it is only a minor quibble in an otherwise wondrous cinematic experience. This is also not to diss Kendrick's performance, which again reveals her tremendous promise as an up-and-coming actress. Kendrick's Katherine, with Adam as only her third patient, is almost squirm-inducingly awful with virtually everything that comes out of her mouth sounding and feeling like Chapter 7 of Textbook 4 in freshman Psych. She too grows throughout this experience, but not to the point I'd ever consider seeing her as a therapist.

Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall are terrific as fellow cancer patients, while Bryce Dallas Howard ably sells the humanity behind the ugliness that simply can't deal with her boyfriend's illness.

Working from a script by Will Reiser, who based the screenplay upon his own experiences in dealing with cancer, director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) nails almost to perfection the balance between humor and humanity. To have made this film nothing but a comedy would have been crass and ineffective, but to have made it a straight-forward drama would have turned it into nothing more than a disease-of-the-week flick. Instead, Levine and his cast/crew have turned 50/50 into one of 2011's best films.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic  

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