No, it’s not about horse betting or thieves divvying up their spoils. The subject of 50/50, a dramedy directed by Jonathan Levine and written by Will Reiser (and based on Reiser’s own battle with cancer), is confronting mortality. How would we (and our loved ones) find the strength to persevere if life handed us a cancer diagnosis and a one-in-two chance of surviving? Like Adam Lerner (Joseph-Gordon Levitt), we’d probably be wavering between despair and denial and be smoking medicinal grass (some of us anyway), wanting to experience any new pleasures that life had to offer.
This carpe diem philosophy is relatable to be sure, but a film needs more than a philosophy to succeed. With 50/50, the fault is more in execution than in intention. While at times poignant and smart, the film often becomes mired in contrivance, hitting the viewer over the head with unsubtle sexual humor and crude character stereotypes.
The best part of the film is Levitt’s strong performance in the lead role. He approaches his character with a heady mixture of emotional fortitude and intellectual detachment, touchingly conveying Adam’s struggles in dealing with the Big C without overdoing it.
The worst part of the film is, well, every other character, starting with Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a boorish smut fiend whose overriding concern in life is getting laid. I’m certainly no prude, but I don’t see what Kyle’s lewd jokes about blowjobs and ball-shaving razors add to the storyline. Through Kyle, the film seems to be telling us that the only point to male living is wanking off and hooking up as much as possible.
Then there’s the trio of women in Adam’s life.
A typical mother, Diane Lerner (Anjelica Huston) understandably wants to step in and care for her son when she hears the bad news. Adam’s situation only adds to the burdens in her life, considering that she’s already saddled with an Alzheimer’s husband (Serge Houde). Ironically, the father seems a more sympathetic character than his wife. Although her maternal smothering has a self-centered bent, his demented, worrywart face conveys his strange realization of the gravity of the situation—even if he isn’t fully cognizant of his son’s identity.
When we first meet his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a painter of hideously ugly modern watercolors, she’s off to an exhibition. Hearing about Adam’s diagnosis, she offers to stick by him and lend a mothering hand. Alas, she turns out to be a tart with shockingly low standards: Kyle, who had always been suspicious of her, takes a cell-phone photograph of her frenching a dreadlocked, bearded hippy. Howard’s simpering performance, particularly when Rachael begs for Adam to take her back, is about as over-the-top schmaltzy as they come. I admit that I smirked with satisfaction when Adam tells Rachael to “get the fuck off his porch” and Adam and Kyle torch the color-streaked mess of a painting she leaves at his apartment.
It would, of course, be too cruel to leave poor Adam without a soulmate. What would a Hollywood movie be without a love story? Enter Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick), a predoctoral psychiatrist who becomes the cancer patient’s therapist, helping him deal with the realization that his days may be numbered. Initially I was put off by Kendrick’s ditzy diction and annoyingly pearly-white smile, though I must admit she also has a cute perkiness that I warmed to as her character unfolded. What I didn’t care for was how formulaic her character was. Written all over her first smile at Adam is the assurance that the two will enter into more than a doctor-patient relationship. And after Rachael’s infidelity, they are inexorably pushed closer and closer together, propelling the film toward its sickeningly happy ending. Ah well, a love story tends to make mainstream audiences feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth.
As for me, I don’t exactly think that 50/50 wasted my time, but I ultimately found it a mixed bag. There were certainly plenty of heart-wrenching moments—for example, Adam’s chemotherapy sickness or his emotional outpouring at the climax. (That Levitt plays most of his role with such equanimity makes this outburst seem all the more powerful.)
But I think the film’s comedy generally falls flat. It has a forced feeling, as if it was inserted for no better reason than to lighten a somber topic (perhaps that’s all it was doing but, if so, it seems as though more thought should have gone into it). Furthermore, the corpulent Rogen’s extroversion and crudeness, probably intended as a polar contrast to the slender Levitt’s anal retentiveness, makes their bond seem more like a an odd-couple pairing than a true friendship. A few of Rogen’s lewd lines were funny, I guess, but only in isolation; they rarely seemed to have any larger purpose within the film’s context. For me, the only real comedic relief was the two old men and fellow cancer patients, Mitch Barnett (Matt Frewer) and Alan Lombardo (Philip Baker Hall), who become Adam’s hospital buddies, offering him weed-laced macaroons and some choice bits of wisdom. Alas, a funny moment or two can’t compensate for a generally pedestrian script.
So can I recommend 50/50? Eh, mezzo-mezzo. It’s mildly enjoyable as long you aren’t counting on a sure thing.
Joe’s Grade: B-