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50/50 Review

By Joe Lozito

Topic of Cancer


In movies, cancer is used one of two ways: as the catalyst for a disease-of-the-week weepie full of swelling strings, reconciled relationships and important life lessons on the Lifetime or Hallmark channels; or as a quickly introduced - and quickly resolved - plot point in a film with nowhere else to go. Every generation of so, a movie will come along that attempts to deal with this seemingly omnipresent malady in all its glory. "Terms of Endearment" stands as the ne plus ultra in this arena. And kudos must go to "50/50", an ambitious comedy that attempts to turn a realistic and humorous eye on the effect that the c-word has on the victim and those in his or her circle.

The title refers to the odds of surviving the particular form of cancer in the film - and rare and insidious strain that strikes 27 year-old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It's indicative of the winking nature of the film - with Seth Rogen as a star and co-producer, the Judd Apatow vibe is rampant - that those odds are retrieved from After receiving his diagnosis from a doctor with some of the worst bedside manner ever put to screen, Adam embarks on the difficult journey of dealing with his illness, revealing it to his friends and family, and fighting it with chemotherapy.

The film is directed with flair by Jonathan Levine, who uses some subtle camera tricks to his advantage - particularly during a bit of fun with medicinal marijuana. But, oddly, it's the makeup that's lacking here. It seems crude to say it, but Mr. Gordon-Levitt - who is a fine actor and gives a heartfelt, difficult performance - never looks sick enough. He (really) shaves his head, wears his wool cap and puts on the pale makeup, but the film never portrays that jarring transformation that frequently accompanies chemotherapy. He hits one level of sickness and pretty much stays there. Happily, his performance does not. As is often the case with this actor, he gives a nuanced, fully-realized turn.

He also plays straight-man to Mr. Rogen's unadulterated id. You've seen this character from Mr. Rogen before - every time you've seen him, in fact. He appears to waltz on screen in whatever he wore to work that day and make up his lines as he goes along. Still, he does it well, and some of his one-liners hit the mark. He also gets to take part in one of the best break-up/wish-fulfillment scenes in memory (and he milks it for all it's worth).

The women fare less well. Bryce Dallas Howard does her best as Adam's cypher of a girlfriend - a struggling artist and plot device. Anna Kendrick, from "Up in the Air", does a great job as the world's worst therapist but, really, she's in danger of overdoing the awkwardness. In a movie about a guy with spinal cancer, she's the one with no backbone. But then there's Angelica Huston who lights up her every moment as Adam's understandably troubled mother.

At every turn, the script - a semi-autobiographical tale by Will Reiser - attempts to balance the gravity of the topic with the levity that it so hopes to sustain. For the most part the film succeeds, thanks to some deft handling by the talented cast and Mr. Reiser's unflinching honesty. "50/50" may appear benign on the surface but it's likely to stay with you and develop into something more than you might have thought. And in this case that's a good thing.

What did you think?

Movie title 50/50
Release year 2011
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary This ambitious comedy may appear benign on the surface but it's likely to stay with you and develop into something more than you might have thought. And in this case that's a good thing.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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