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50/50 Avoids the Trappings of Most Illness Movies

Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by Will Reiser
Summit, 2011

Do you ever watch a cancer movie and start getting really frustrated at the main character for having cancer and being such a whiny baby about it?  Maybe you’re one who thinks no decent person would.  Which means, I’m not a decent person I guess.  Cancer/illness movies are a sticky entertainment.  How do you go about getting “entertained” when the hero is sick?  And how do you feel empathy for the hero when that person is always complaining about the sickness?  Generally, I like it when the sick character has some nobility.  There’s time for the bitching at some point, and sadness, but these movies always leave a depressing signature to them that makes it hard to recommend.  “Thumbs up for the cancer movie!”  It doesn’t have a nice ring.

Luckily we have some good actors here and the right amount of comic relief to set off the depressing tone.  Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is 30…does that make anyone feel old?) is an NPR researcher/writer in Seattle, along with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen, in his perfect, goofy, weed-smoking friend mode).  Adam is in a sagging relationship with killer redhead Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and one day he gets the news from his doctor that he has some sort of spinal cancer.  He has a 50/50 shot to live.  He wonders how long he should take to tell his mother (Anjelica Huston), who worries too much and has to care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband (Serge Houde)

He gives Rachael an “out,” but she doesn’t take it, but she’s not handling it well, not really being there for him when it matters.  He makes some older friends with cancer, Alan (Philip Baker Hall, always great) and Mitch (Matt Frewer).  He meets with a young, inexperienced therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick, who really might be the prettiest girl ever), who seems to be book-smart on therapy but unconsciously makes mistakes.  Adam spends a lot of time hanging out with Kyle, who pretty much uses his illness as a way to score chicks, but he’s always a benevolent, welcome presence in Adam’s life (and the movie).

It’s pretty much your typical deal-with-cancer type of movie, with a couple of outbursts, but what makes it different is the presence of Rogen, who in the right role can be infectiously funny and seems like everybody’s best friend.  There are scenes in here that are usually handled in a routine way that with the presence of Rogen become completely different.  You know the scene in movies where the best friend finds out that the best friend’s girlfriend is cheating on him, and the best friend never believes it?  That scene is absolutely different, one I’ve never seen before, and hilarious.

Levitt never really gets to shine, which is why this movie is not “great,” and it almost always relies on Rogen to pick it up.  Luckily he’s in it enough or you might be comparing this to the last cancer movie you saw.  The last one I saw was My Sister’s Keeper, which was OK at times but ultimately just too sad and whiny to be recommended entertainment.  This one is good.  It rounds out the best September in memory.

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