Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
In the opening scene of the comedy-drama 50/50, 27-year-old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) jogs through early-morning downtown Seattle. At a stop light, another jogger trots past him, ignoring the illuminated red hand. Adam stays put. He's a guy who doesn't drink, smoke or break traffic laws. He even works for a public radio station. Adam is safe and sensible, and that means he can avoid things as random and chaotic as cancer with a coin-flip survival rate ... right?
That's the setup, anyway, that screenwriter Will Reiser, working from personal experience (having been diagnosed with a rare tumor in his 20s), almost completely ignores from that point forward.
50/50 is also kind of about the darkly comic relationship between Adam and his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who at first seems mostly interested in how Adam's tragic diagnosis can get both of them laid. It's kind of about the bond Adam forges with a pair of fellow chemotherapy patients (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall), and occasionally about Adam's difficulty dealing with his overprotective mother (Anjelica Huston). It's kind of about the relationship between Adam and the inexperienced hospital therapist, Katie McKay (Anna Kendrick), who struggles to help him through his ordeal as she's figuring out how to do her job.
All of those ideas are full of potential, and yet it never feels as though 50/50 is entirely sure which the movie is really about.
The interplay between Adam and Kyle lets Rogen be at his Rogen-est, a potty-mouthed stoner and amiable goofball with a heart of gold. The scenes with Hall and Frewer capture the battlefield camaraderie of guys who understand one another's fears. Kendrick is typically adorable as the young professional trying to move from textbook-approved tactics to trusting her instincts. But in retrospect, it seems as though director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) is working with a collection of missed opportunities.
As easy as the rapport is between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen, Reiser doesn't allow their relationship to evolve in meaningful ways. There's a clumsiness to the way Adam's relatively new artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) becomes an easy villain-bitch rather than a supportive figure. And as charming as nearly every scene is between Adam and Katie, the time spent on their relationship begins to suggest that 50/50 is mostly a quirky romantic comedy.
If anything holds it all together, it's Gordon-Levitt. He builds the complexity into Adam, remaining fundamentally sympathetic even as his focus on his own situation makes it hard for him to appreciate the ways the people are trying to help, and feeling their own pain. As stridently as 50/50 works to avoid sentimentality, it manages to be more than a collection of caustic anecdotes because of how committed Gordon-Levitt is to Adam's humanity.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that 50/50 is merely good instead of great. Adam's resistance to outside help should have been connected to his fastidious personality — not in a too-tidy, on-the-nose way, but simply in a way that acknowledges a failure to trust in anything if his fundamental rules about the fairness of the universe have betrayed him. And that's only one of the things a knockout 50/50 could have been about, instead of the half-dozen things it's only kind of about.