A guy in his late 20s faces even odds of beating cancer in “50/50,” a title that could also describe the ratio of too-obvious humor to genuinely affecting drama in this uneven seriocomedy. Will Reiser’s semiautobiographical script initially prescribes too artificial a story treatment for its characters but is rescued by a genial, low-key vibe that builds in sensitivity and emotion up through the final reels. Handicapped by a depressing if widely relatable cancer-sucks premise, Summit’s campaign is placing misleading emphasis on Seth Rogen’s rambunctious best-friend turn to sell laff-seeking audiences on this likable but hardly uproarious Sept. 30 release.
The kind of responsible, risk-averse guy who regularly goes running around his native Seattle and won’t cross a street until the traffic light permits, 27-year-old NPR staffer Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is understandably surprised when he learns of the malignant tumors along his spine. In an overly cold, anesthetized scene intended to emphasize Adam’s shellshock and the impersonal nature of the medical establishment, an oncologist tells him he has a 50/50 chance of survival. Adam tries to remain optimistic, no easy feat after his mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), and his best bud, Kyle (Rogen), react to the news in ways more overbearing than helpful.
Of course, the one who fails Adam is the one he needs the most: Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his sexy artist girlfriend, promises to stand by him and nurse him back to health, but her discomfort with the ickier aspects of Adam’s chemo regimen — tastefully depicted here with some heard-but-not-seen vomiting — is an immediate giveaway that her commitment is rather less than what it appears to be. Around the same time, Adam begins counseling sessions with newbie therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) that are by turns awkward, tetchy and mildly flirtatious.
While Reiser’s screenplay has its roots in personal experience, these setup passages ring false in ways that suggest a movie torn between its crowd-pleasing imperatives and its obligation to say something insightful about Adam’s experience as well as Reiser’s. There’s something admirable about the pic’s willingness to suggest that our nearest and dearest do sometimes abandon us in our hour of greatest need, and the searing confrontation scene that seals Rachael’s betrayal is impressively bold and nervy. Yet this subplot as a whole, from its convenient demonization of the unfaithful g.f. to its post-breakup celebratory montage, leaves an altogether sour aftertaste. Similarly problematic is the pat, idealized development of Adam and Katherine’s relationship as they begin to blur the doctor-patient boundaries.
If these emotional developments feel too cardboard, there are compensations in Jonathan Levine’s direction, whose overall mellowness feels at one with Adam’s nice-guy passivity. The essential appeal of “50/50” is that the cancer patient here is someone who is decidedly not the life of the party, and Gordon-Levitt is ideally cast as the sort of sensitive, self-effacing guy who seems more special and appealing the longer you spend with him.
Actor and script adroitly convey conflicting emotions that patients with long-term illnesses and their loved ones will surely recognize: Adam’s frustration at having to comfort those closest to him rather than be comforted, and his refusal of the easy pity offered by friends and acquaintances in between snatches of small talk. It’s this level of quiet perceptiveness that enables “50/50” to finally, ahem, get into your system.
Supporting thesps are effective even when the pic uses them in questionable ways. Howard, who between this and “The Help” is perhaps in danger of being typecast as a villain, nonetheless makes Rachael as human and sympathetic as possible under the circumstances. Rogen, allowed to set perhaps too broad and vulgar a tone at first, eventually dials it down as the pic takes its exploration of Adam and Kyle’s friendship to a deeper level. Best of all is Huston, whose casting in what initially seems to be a slight nagging-mom role pays off down the road with enormous emotion.
Final scene is of a piece with the film’s loose, easy mood, yet quietly surprising in the note it chooses to end on. Pic overall marks a flawed but reasonably confident progression for Levine after his 2008 Sundance hit “The Wackness,” with which it shares an exuberant belief in the therapeutic benefits of pot smoking, no matter what ails you. Tech package is no-nonsense but pro, with Vancouver and other British Columbia locations standing in effectively for gray, chilly Seattle.