’50/50′ comes out ahead

Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

So, it’s not like I’m completely clueless to the massive appeal that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gained in recent years. Just because I still picture little Tommy Solomon the extraterrestrial information officer when I hear the actor’s name and still snicker to myself when I think about a scrawny Cameron James trying so hard to look like he knows French well enough to tutor Bianca Stratford doesn’t mean I’m blind to the present day. With regret, I have to recognize that the kid has grown up.

“50/50,” the latest movie to star said grown-up, puts Adam (Gordon-Levitt) in a position most of us would cringe to even consider: At 27, in the midst of a fledgling career in radio and a serious relationship with a girl named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), he is diagnosed with spinal cancer. Despite how huge of a bummer that is, the film rebounds with support from Kyle (Seth Rogen), Adam’s outspoken and vulgar best friend.

Though it’s an inexact parallel to make, it’s hard not to walk into this film without vague traces of “(500) Days of Summer” lingering in the back of one’s head. The two films do have a couple of similarities: Gordon-Levitt in a main role as an underappreciated protagonist and his funny, ridiculous and socially awkward best friend, to name a couple.

In the end, though, the two films stand for completely different things. Instead of heartbreak at the hands of a certain Ms. Deschanel, the main consternation here is cancer, and this works well in the film’s advantage. Emotions are much more real and heartfelt, and performances by all the supporting actors (even Rogen, who has played the clown in all but a few of his roles) work to support and nuance the intense psychological catastrophe that Gordon-Levitt pulls off nicely.

“50/50” hardly concentrates on romance at all, preferring to use a botched one-night stand as an example of how gravely affected Adam becomes in his sickness. The only real romantic connection presented is a somewhat vaguely developed relationship with Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young therapist, though it’s one that the audience will always choose over the irresponsible and narcissistic dealings of Dallas Howard’s Rachael.

The film generally takes a backseat to the visceral aspects of Adam’s cancer as well, leaving out some of the more gruesome details in favor of letting Gordon-Levitt and the rest of the cast deliver on a dramatic level rather than focusing on physical degeneration.

Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall round out the cast as a couple of elderly friends Adam makes while in chemo, representing a disparity in felt age present throughout the entire film. Though Mitch (Frewer) and Alan’s (Baker Hall) characters are many years older than him, they deal with their condition in a much freer and happier way than Adam, who frequently builds walls around himself.

The subject of age and what that means is obviously a huge part of the film: Adam gets cancer at 27, Mitch and Alan eat weed macaroons as they receive chemotherapy and Katherine seems way too young to be a therapist. On this subject, the film doesn’t work overbearingly to deliver a uniform message. Instead, there are a few subtle hints by the end of the film that show how youth should be enjoyed instead of squandered.

Serge Houde as Adam’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and Anjelica Huston as an annoyingly caring mother are the source of many of the film’s painfully attuned emotional twists. Huston especially delivers a stellar performance, driving her worry to the brink of exasperation before turning it into a concern so loving and earnest that this critic was almost compelled to walk out of the theater and call his own mother.

Though it’s certainly not the best film of the year to date, “50/50” is still definitely worth seeing. Gordon-Levitt and Rogen work well together, and Gordon-Levitt’s acting is especially well-done considering how he apparently only slipped into the role two days before shooting started after the originally casted James McAvoy dropped out.

What keeps this film from sliding into depression is also what Adam resists to accept for most of the film: optimism. It’d be a long stretch to call the movie feel-good, but it is by no means a downer, either. Rogen’s antics and a healthy dose of drug use keep the movie alive and kicking.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering: Yes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does look weird with a shaved head.

Rating: 4 out of 5