Diagnosis: Bruised Ego and Funny bone
October 6, 2011
Writer Will Reiser adapts his own fight against cancer into this dramadey, but both he and the film appear resigned to their fates. Adam, Will’s stand-in played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is 27 when diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. It’s a crushing blow, requiring a debilitating treatment regimen that only raises his odds of surviving to 50/50. Hence the title.
The film’s lightly mocking humor is somewhat amusing as a tool to help Adam deal with his situation. Its other purpose is to prevent the film from becoming a downer, a strategy that partially succeeds, but keeps us at arm’s length. At some point we want to be fully engaged with Adam’s ordeal, but we can go only as far as he takes us.
When his cancer is diagnosed, Adam is a radio program producer, toiling under a neglectful boss and settling into a domestic routine with his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). She says the right girlfriendy things, but can’t be relied upon to follow through. Adam fails to heed signs indicating her selfishness, and therefore dares to hopes for her moral support.
Adam and best friend Kyle (played by Reiser’s real-life close friend Seth Rogen), rarely discuss Adam’s cancer, which is just as well since Adam prefers that their time together be an escape. Kyle does make him laugh, but he also makes Adam uncomfortable by scheming to use his friend’s illness as a chick-magnet.
For reasons that remain unconvincing, Adam studiously avoids his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston). She takes the news of his diagnosis surprisingly well, despite coping with his father’s Alzheimer’s – so we’re bewildered when Adam refuses to take her telephone calls.
Adam’s doctor sends him to see Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a 24-year-old therapist-in-training. Their scenes are among the film’s best because she illuminates the emotions that accompany a life-threatening illness.
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While “50/50” may help us understand some of what cancer patients endure, it implies, but rarely depicts, Adam’s suffering.
The film, directed by Jonathan Levine, is technically sound, despite a screenplay that leaves the audience feeling shut out.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers precisely the sort of enigmatic performance that Reiser was looking for, because even now, he isn’t ready to share his innermost feelings.