50/50 | Film review
Joesph Gordon-Levitt plays another screenwriter surrogate in this coping-with-cancer comedy.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is too good an actor to spend the rest of his career playing surrogates for downtrodden screenwriters. That said, he’s certainly up to the task; his funny and sympathetic performance made the semi-autobiographical (500) Days of Summer a pity party worth attending. In 50/50, the former child star plays another put-upon young wordsmith, although what happens to him here is much worse than getting dumped by a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. His character, a young radio scribe named Adam, has just been diagnosed with what best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) calls “type-four back cancer.” A malignant tumor has sprouted up along his spinal cord—and his odds of survival are about even.
Like Harvey Pekar’s graphic novel Our Cancer Year and Tom Green’s surprisingly moving 2001 TV show Cancer Special, 50/50 is a comedy that searches for humor and pathos in the long uphill battle against a deadly disease. Will Reiser, who penned the film, had his own bout with cancer a few years ago, beginning when he and Rogen were working together on Da Ali G Show. The writer’s experiences color this fictionalized account, which works best when getting into the nitty-gritty of Adam’s ordeal—the difficulty of breaking the news to his mother, for example, or the frustration of having to smile and nod while strangers feed him “inspirational” advice.
Our hero’s burgeoning romance with a young therapist (an adorable Anna Kendrick) feels as if it was touched by the gods of meet-cute screenwriting. What sticks here is the earned sentiment, which hinges on the believable friendship between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen (who’s essentially playing himself). Even if the outcome is never really uncertain, the film builds to a deeply affecting climax. Credit the leading man for making such personal material so richly relatable.