Film review by: Witney Seibold
The intended effect of Jonathan Levine‘s “50/50,” about a square twentysomething boy in Seattle who finds he has cancer, seems to be one of flip casualness. In many ways, it resembles Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” in that it tries to put young people in a serious situation (unexpected pregnancy, unexpected cancer) and has them react in a casual and flip fashion to diffuse the seriousness. But while “Juno” was possessed of wit, clever dialogue, and memorable characters, “50/50” is, in unfortunate contrast, kind of bland.
Joseph Gordon Levitt is an amazing actor, and can do wonders in the right role (see “Mysterious Skin” sometime), but as the infected hipster Adam, he doesn’t seem to have much personality at all. We do get the impression that he is a weak-willed person, as he seems to date a string of pushy and shallow women, most recently, the pretty-enough-to-get-away-with-bad-behavior Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, who, with “The Help” and this film, seems to be banking on bitch roles recently), but aside from that, his only passion seems to be weakly-thought-out radio stories for his local public radio affiliate. Adam works in public radio, is successful enough to own a house, and likes making radio reports, but we never get a thought as to his passions and dreams. So when he gets cancer, nothing is interrupted. Nor does he go through an existential crisis about not dreaming bigger. He merely gets cancer and tries to deal with it.
It’s Adam’s old friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) who seems to emerge as the real personality of the two, but even then, he’s little more than your boilerplate horndog best friend. Actually, I’m not even sure I can call him a best friend. Adam and Kyle seem to be acquaintances who have known each other for long enough to be accidental friends, but would probably not be hanging out had they met today. When Kyle hears that Adam has cancer, he reacts with enthusiasm. He points out that a 50/50 chance for survival is better odds than any Vegas card game. Kyle also feels that Adam can use his illness as a sympathy card when picking up women, and Kyle, surprisingly, proves correct. There is a funny scene where Adam announces his illness to a party, and people’s somber reactions are looked at with a bemused detachment.
There is also the grief counselor in Adam’s life, played by the very good Anna Kendrick. The counselor, however, is new to her job, very young (indeed, younger than Adam) and can only quote textbooks dialogue to Adam. Adam sees through her act, and while he doesn’t buy her therapist talk, feels she is more interesting as a person. They begin to form an unlikely friendship. Adam also befriends two of the fellow patients in the cancer ward. There’s the weed-obsessed Philip Baker Hall, who gives one of the oddest performances I’ve seen from him. And there’s the kindly suffering Matt Frewer, who is always a delight.
Giving someone cancer in a movie always feels like a cheap shot to me. This film, to be fair, is about cancer, but still, perhaps, romanticizes the illness to too large a degree. Adam comments on how bad he looks when he’s merely wearing a knit cap, and has dark circles painted under his eyes. He claims to be torn about his illness, but he doesn’t seem to behave that way. It’s only near the end of the film, when Adam gives out a hurtful and soul-ripping primal scream that we really get the insight into his character that we’ve been craving. Otherwise, “50/50,” while perfectly delightful, bright and brisk, feels a little bit too much like a cheap-shot cancer TV movie.
So I don’t end this review on too sour a note, I do want to iterate that I enjoyed “50/50” for long sections, thought some of the throw-off one-liners were hilarious, and I really liked the film’s final line of dialogue. It puts a button on the film, and really sums up a lot of the issues that the characters were having. The final line of dialogue gives the film some much needed focus. It’s just a pity they had to wait until then.