Review: “50-50″

The Projector

1. "50-50" is an attempt to tell an honest, funny, non-mawkish, unsentimental story about cancer, and what it's like to live with it. This is a noble goal, and the movie is agreeable, occasionally moving and consistently funny. But let us not get carried away: "50-50" is still conventional, safe and familiar to anyone who has ever watched either a Judd Apatow movie or a Lifetime movie of the week. I'm grateful that it doesn't take the easy route that you might expect a cancer movie to take, but I'm not sure that entirely excuses every other easy route it takes.

2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a tremendously likable performance (the guy is becoming the cinematic equivalent of a towel that just came out of the dryer), plays Adam, a regular fella with a temperamental girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), an overbearing mom (Angelica Huston) and a straight-from-central-casting best-friend-bro who just wants to smoke pot and pick up girls all the time (Seth Rogen, obviously). Then, out of nowhere, a 2-by-4 to the head: He has an "aggressive" form of cancer that gives him only a 50 percent chance of survival. We watch as the news sinks in to his family and friends, and how he deals with it himself, mostly notably through a young, conveniently attractive psychiatrist (Anna Kendrick). How does cancer affect his life? How does it affect anyone's?

3. That he is only 27 years old, a Regular Dude, is the central organizing principle of the movie: As a person, Adam isn't inherently interesting, with or without the cancer, which is part of the movie's point (it could happen to you, yes, boring old you) but also keeps us at arm's length, like we're watching a person suffer from cancer more than actually feeling him suffer from cancer. The movie spends a lot of time with the Rogen character, who is mostly funny but exists solely to keep the movie on the "we're not getting maudlin here" track (even when he inevitably gets an "awww" moment to salvage it all). Adam's relationship with his mother is screenwriter boilerplate -- she's overbearing! she thinks he doesn't call her enough! -- and a father with Alzheimer's proves once again that the quickest way to make your protagonist more "human" is to give him a father with Alzheimer's. (See: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Friends With Benefits.") This all goes down smoothly and in an entertaining fashion -- director Jonathan Levine has a light, funky little touch -- but let's not pretend we're reinventing something here.

4. Oh, and: This movie has some real lady issues. This is a common Apatowian/Rogenian/Evan Goldbergian problem, but it's particularly vivid here. It's so nice to have Angelica Huston in a high-profile role again -- the frame somehow gets more regal with her in it -- but Adam is incapable of seeing her any other context than Mother. It's also telling that Adam's ultimate love interest is a woman who is paid to listen to him talk about himself; there'd be no other way for this crew to fit a woman in this script. But the worst is Howard, playing yet another self-absorbed, shrewish monster-woman. She does her best to humanize this awful character -- she cheats on Adam while he's undergoing cancer treatments, something we can see when we first meet her, when she's essentially lit like Frankenstein emerging from the shadows -- but the movie makes its intentions pretty clear when the Rogen character calls her the "c-word." (The scene when the bros confront her with her cheating is uncomfortable and weird, and it just thinks it's hilarious.) Adam is the grand innocent pure heart just trying to survive, and his pal just wants to get stoned with him and get him laid; the movie doesn't allow for any perspectives, least of all any female ones, outside of that.

5. The movie still sails in its quieter moments, thanks to Gordon-Levitt's winning turn and a genial vibe, even when its perspective borders on the sinister. And just when you're getting frustrated with it, "50-50" conjures up a knockout of a final 20 minutes, when Adam gathers all those around him to find out just which side of the coin his 50-50 odds is gonna come up. (There's a scene with Adam and his mom right before he goes into surgery that will knock the wind out of you.) I'm not sure this is any sort of "new" cancer movie, but it's nonetheless an undeniable crowd-pleaser. (If they can get past the "women don't much like Seth Rogen" problem, it's the Platonic ideal of a compromise date movie.) Now, should a movie that prides itself on being "real" about cancer be so preoccupied with puppy dog eyes toward the audience as this one is? Probably not. But even with all its faults, it's pretty difficult not to be won over.

Grade: B