In the opening scene of the comedy-drama 50/50, 27-year-old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) jogs through early-morning downtown Seattle. As he comes to a stoplight, another jogger trots past him across the street, ignoring the illuminated red hand. But Adam stays put. He’s a guy who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and gets his exercise in a way that doesn’t break traffic laws. He even works for a public radio station. Adam is safe and sensible—and being safe and sensible means you can keep out of your life things as random and chaotic as cancer with a coin-flip survival rate … right?
That’s the setup, anyway—and it’s one that screenwriter Will Reiser, working from his own personal experience of being diagnosed with a rare tumor in his 20s, almost completely ignores from that point forward. 50/50 is also kind of about the darkly comic relationship between Adam and his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who, at least at first, seems mostly interested in how Adam’s tragic diagnosis can get both of them laid. It’s kind of about the bond Adam forges with a pair of fellow chemotherapy patients (Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall), and occasionally about Adam’s difficulty dealing with his overprotective mother (Anjelica Huston).
It’s kind of about the relationship between Adam and the inexperienced hospital therapist, Katie McKay (Anna Kendrick), who struggles to help him through his ordeal even as she’s figuring out how to do her job. All of those ideas are full of potential, and yet it never feels as though 50/50 is entirely sure which of those ideas the movie is really, ultimately about.
The confusing part is, at any given moment while watching 50/50, you’re probably watching something fairly effective. The interplay between Adam and Kyle provides plenty of opportunity for Rogen to be at his Rogen-est, a potty-mouthed unapologetic stoner and amiable goofball with a heart of gold. The scenes with Hall and Frewer capture the battlefield camaraderie of fellows who understand one another’s fears, and provide the incongruously hilarious moment of Adam strolling blissfully—and laughing inappropriately—through the hospital after his first experience with pot-laced macaroons. Kendrick is typically adorable, never falling back on simple neurotic tics to convey a young professional trying to move from textbook-approved tactics to trusting her instincts.
But in retrospect, it seems as though director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) is working with a collection of missed opportunities. As easy as the rapport is between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen, Reiser doesn’t allow their relationship to build or evolve in meaningful ways, or even play off the possible tension as Adam begins feeling more kinship with his cancer buddies. There’s a clumsiness to the way the film deals with Adam’s artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who becomes an easy villain-bitch rather than someone trying to offer support out of the depth of their relatively new romance. And as charming as nearly every scene is between Adam and Katie—seriously, why has nobody yet found the role that will make Anna Kendrick a bona fide star?—the amount of time spent on their relationship begins to suggest that 50/50 is mostly a quirky sort of romantic comedy.
If anything does hold it all together, it’s Gordon-Levitt, who has grown into a happy exception to the rule that child actors don’t become good—let alone great—adult actors. He builds the complexity into Adam, remaining fundamentally sympathetic even as his understandable focus on his own frightening situation makes it hard for him to appreciate the ways the people around him are trying to help and feeling their own pain. As stridently as Levine and Reiser work to avoid sentimentality—and it’s kind of impossible to imagine Rogen being involved in anything that leaned in that direction—50/50 manages to be more than a collection of caustic anecdotes because of how committed Gordon-Levitt is to Adam’s humanity.
Which, in some ways, makes it all the more frustrating that 50/50 is merely good instead of great. Adam’s resistance to outside help should have been connected to his fastidious personality—not in a too-tidy, on-the-nose way, but simply in a way that acknowledges a failure to trust in anything if his fundamental rules about the fairness of the universe have betrayed him. And that’s only one of the things a knockout 50/50 could have been about, instead of the half-dozen things it’s only kind of about.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick