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In 50/50, a 27-year-old cancer patient is hanging out with his best friend the night before an operation that’s as likely to kill him as save him. And he’s got one desire: to drive a car, something he’s never done before. “That’s your Make-a-Wish?” his friend asks. “You could be having sex with hookers while skydiving right now!” Turns out the title refers not only to Adam’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) chances of beating the big C but the tone of this film as well. In a good way: Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), written by Will Reiser (who based the script on his own experience), and co-starring Reiser’s friend Seth Rogen, 50/50 has humorous moments and heavy ones, and neither half feels forced.
Adam is a do-the-right-thing public-radio reporter with a great girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) when he gets the news that he has spinal cancer. “But I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I recycle…” he tells the doctor, stunned. His friends and family are too, of course, and his illness adds still more weight to the shoulders of his anxious mother (Anjelica Huston), who’s already busy taking care of his Alzheimer’s-ridden father. But Adam has a good support system, particularly his foul-mouthed friend Kyle (Rogen) and his inexperienced-but-trying therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). (That girlfriend turns out to be not so great.)
Unlike Gus Van Sant’s recent, similarly themed Restless, there’s no romanticizing of a life possibly cut short here—cancer sucks, period. Adam pukes, loses his energy and his temper, and sits in chemo with two other deteriorating patients who have their own brands of gallows humor. The film’s musical cues are obvious (Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” when Adam is feeling alone), but the details always feel realistic. In Adam’s shoes, you would make jokes with your wiseass friend. You would bristle at your mother’s smothering. And you would notice that your therapist, though she’s kinda terrible, is also kinda hot. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt’s low-key turns help (particularly Rogen, dialing it way down from Green Hornet levels of mania). 50/50 may make cancer amusing, but it doesn’t make it cute.