October 20, 2011 -- This awkward comedy about a man stricken with cancer has received mixed reviews, all the way from high praise to condemnation. A similar kind of sick comedy released last year, “Love and Other Drugs,” also received mixed reviews for the same reason. My own response to “50-50” is mixed. It is tough to make a comedy about cancer, since it touches us all. Several members of my own family have been stricken by this disease, which often kills in a brutal fashion, and the cure, often chemotherapy, is brutal as well. It is not funny. When you have Seth Rogen in a film, however, anything can be funny.
The main character in the film, Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “500 Days of Summer”) learns that he has cancer when his doctor, speaking into his recorder, not to his patient, happens to mention the dreaded term “carcinoma.” Adam asks the doctor what the hell was the meaning of all that medical gobbledygook he just spouted. It turns out Adam has a rare form of cancer, a tumor growing on his spine. The doctor might have mentioned that, but he is the epitome of the impersonal medical professional. Talking to the patient is left to others, in this case Katherine (Anna Kendrick of “Up in the Air”) a young therapist working on her doctorate. Since Katherine has only had two clients before, she is working from a textbook. Adam's best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen of “The Green Hornet”) puts on a brave face and then tries to use Adam's condition to score with chicks. As he did in “Knocked Up,” Rogen's flawed character finally comes through for his sick friend when it counts.
Adam's girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard of “The Help”) an artist, is willing to help Adam, but fails him when he really needs her. Adam's mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston of “The Darjeeling Limited”) is a mass of overbearing worries who is busy taking care of her husband, Richard (Serge Houde of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules”) who has Alzheimer's disease and cannot even remember his own son. Adam is good at hiding his own feelings, but Katherine and Kyle are finally able to draw him out. When Adam tells Katherine he can't stand talking to his mother because of her incessant worrying, Katherine observes, “So she has a husband she can't talk to a son who won't talk to her.” Adam realizes he isn't the center of the universe and should at least reach out to his own mother.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an outstanding, Oscar-worthy performance in this film and Rogen and Kendrick are also excellent. The mix of comedy and tragedy doesn't work all that well, but it works enough of the time to make this a film worthy of attention. The story is based, in part, on the personal experiences of cancer survivor Will Reiser, who wrote the film's screenplay and was the executive producer of this film. This film rates a B.
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