50/50

5050 joseph gordon levitt seth rogen
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in '50/50'.

Part of me doesn't even want to tell you that 50/50 is a comedy about a guy with cancer. Chances are you'll groan and stop reading. That would be a mistake, because 50/50 is not infected with the usual TV tear-jerking and bogus uplift. It's actually hilarious, heartfelt and acted with such no-bull audacity that you'll hate yourself for just thinking you'd hate it.

OK, I've got one more groaner hurdle. 50/50 is inspired by a true story, "inspired" usually translating into an excuse to make shit up. Not here. Will Reiser, who wrote the screenplay, really was diagnosed with a malignant spinal tumor. Since he wrote the script, you probably surmised he didn't die. And Seth Rogen, who plays Reiser's friend in the movie, really is Reiser's friend. Rogen and his Superbad partner Evan Goldberg helped get the movie produced. I'm guessing the names have been changed to protect some of the raunchier jokes.

That's OK by me – 50/50 is better than OK, it's some kind of miracle considering the traps that could have mangled it. The stellar Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam (the Will character), a producer at NPR in Seattle, and he gives one of the best performances of the year, taking Adam on the roller coaster from diagnosis to dread and defiance without making a false move. And Rogen plays Kyle (the Seth character) with his signature bawdy wit laced with touching gravity. Gordon-Levitt and Rogen are a dream team, even when the dream turns into a nightmare. Cheers to director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) for giving the film a raw, ragged look that deepens his attempts to keep it real. Gordon-Levitt shaved his own head in the scene where Adam decides to cut off his hair before chemo does the job. I can't speak to whether Gordon-Levitt participated in the scene in which Kyle trims Adam's balls. But no rowdy opportunity is missed, especially with Adam and two fellow patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer).

More delicate feelings spring up between Adam and Katherine (a wonderful Anna Ken­drick), his painfully inexperienced therapist. But for full-throttle emotion, hold on for a superb Anjelica Huston as Adam's take-charge mother, coping with a son who'd rather ignore her and a husband facing dementia. At every point when you expect the story to tumble over into sitcom/soap-opera excess, 50/50 pulls back and sides with unvarnished truth. A movie handled with this kind of care is a rare gift. Refusing to hide from pain or bow to it, 50/50 makes its own rules. It'll get to you.

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From The Archives Issue 1141: October 13, 2011