Too much in the deliberate crowd-pleaser mold (not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that) to flirt with greatness, Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 doesn’t even quite pull off “very good,” but it easily walks off with a solid “good.” And in 2011, good may be good enough. It’s also a film that I suspect benefits greatly from a last-minute change in the lead. While I have nothing against James McAvoy, I can think of no one—including him—who could pull off the role of the cancer-stricken Adam nearly as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose subtle—slightly bemused—performance keeps the film from descending into bathos.
The film begins in a slightly perfunctory—even clunky—manner in setting up the fact that Adam has cancer. In many ways, the film might have been better had it started with the doctor (TV actor Andrew Airlie) coolly—to the point of cruelty—giving Adam the bad news of the tumor next to his spine. The whole set-up with Adam reacting to a pain in his lower back and mentioning it to his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), verges on the corny— almost to the extent of being a Lifetime “disease of the week” TV movie. In the film’s favor, however, it uses this time to establish Adam’s character—and to a lesser extent that of his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his relationship with Kyle.
Particularly good is the opening scene where Adam refuses to cross a street against the lights—despite the fact that it’s early morning and there’s not even a hint of traffic. We quickly discern what kind of person Adam is—and are not in the least surprised when one of the reasons he comes up with that he “can’t” have cancer is that he recycles. It also changes what could have been a cheap joke into a moment of charming naïveté. Adam truly believes that bad things don’t happen to “good” people.
The bulk of the film, of course, follows Adam’s cancer treatments—and how it impacts those around him. In this regard, 50/50 is surprisingly good at packing a great deal into a relatively small space. (Devoid of ending credits, the film is barely over 90 minutes). A lot of it is admittedly in shorthand, but it mostly works—even while packing the film with characters. These subordinate characters—like the two men (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) Adam becomes friends with during chemo—are given the illusion of three dimensions. Sometimes the trip is a little bumpy. It’s not until late in the film that Anjelica Huston, as Adam’s mother, comes into her own. The only time it doesn’t ultimately work is in the case of the Rachael character. She comes across like a shallow plot contrivance—which, in essence, she is—and Bryce Dallas Howard isn’t a strong enough screen presence to overcome the role’s shortcomings.
Despite the presence of all the other characters—including a charming performance from Anna Kendrick as Adam’s rookie counsellor—the film is really about Adam and Kyle. That means that your response to 50/50 is going to depend to some degree on your feelings about Seth Rogen and pairing him with Gordon-Levitt. Since my own feelings about Rogen are rarely all that positive, I was surprised by how well I liked him in this. I can’t deny that Kyle comes across a lot like the typical Rogen character—brash, obnoxious and crude. But there’s an undercurrent here that is missing from most Rogen performances. There’s a sense that Kyle cares deeply for Adam and is doing the best he can for him, but he’s clumsy and not very good at it. And, no, this isn’t just from a single, late-in-the-day revelation; it’s built up along the way—and it’s surprisingly complex. Most unusual is the depiction of an inherent—and conflicted—jealousy over Adam’s romances with women. The inherent subtext even finds verbal expression—as a joke—late in the film. It’s not stressed, but it’s there and it helps make Kyle something more than Rogen 101. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use.