50/50: Jonathan (The Wackness) Levine’s Upbeat Cancer Movie, Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 may be one of the most upbeat “cancer” movie ever made, in a growing field of both big screen and small screen features about terminal illnesses.

Levine, whose feature debut was the offbeat Sundance comedy, “The Wackness,” in 2008, which never fulfilled commercial expectations, tries very hard—too hard—for this honor.  But, judging by the end result, he delivers a heartfelt but not always convincing or satisfying film.

This cancer story also belongs to the growing subgenre of  bromance, offering Joseph Gordon-Levitt one of his richest roles to date.   Gordon-Levitt plays Adam (I wish he answered to another name), a guy who gets sick with a rare form of cancer, while Seth Rogen is the best friend Kyle, who will not leave his side.

But “50/50” is also a bit of a romcom: Adam and cancer therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick) fall hard for each other, even though this is obviously “very unprofessional” on her part.  (This is the season for professionals to violate thier code of ethics: In “A Dangerous Method,” Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender has a steamy, ferocious affair with his unstable patient, played by Keira Knightley).

Adam’s cancer unfortunately sometimes seems mostly a plot device to make the bromance/romcom more substantial.

Newbie Will Reiser’s screenplay is formulaic but clever, working in a number of nice moments and keeper lines. As an example, when Kyle learns that Adam has cancer, his reaction is pitch-perfect: “I’m going to throw up!”

The screenwriter includes many pop culture references in the dialogue, which seem natural for his young, well-educated characters.

When Adam lets his worrywart mom, played by Angelica Huston, know that he is sick, he begins with “Have you ever seen ‘Terms of Endearment’?” And when Kyle helps Adam shave off all his hair, he warns his friend, “You’re going to look like fucking Michael Stipe or something!”

The main question is whether Levine and Reiser can come up with a compelling tale with this cancer dramedy/bromance/romcom.

While “50/50” is emotionally engaging, the film is hampered by serious flights of fancy and uneven tone.

The film takes place in a dream-like Seattle in a dream-like America, where working for public radio (both Adam and Kyle do so) is almost as cool as working for Facebook in “The Social Network” (2010). Healthcare, meanwhile, has advanced to the point that cancer patients get perky and determined twenty-four-year-old therapists like Katie, who has her own snazzy office in which they can relax and express all their fears. There is not the slightest suggestion in this film of our country’s current economic and healthcare woes, which may puzzle many viewers who have real-life experience in this realm.

This is especially evident in the first act, in which Gordon-Levitt is diagnosed, and Levine overextends himself in trying to convince that things are not going to get heavy.

A cheesy, cutesy, and grating score by Michael Giacchino screams “This is not going to be ‘Dying Young’!” Levine lurches between the serious and the silly without the necessary confidence to pull off such swings. He seems to be most concerned in assuring viewers that not much is actually at stake. In other words, fear not, nobody necessarily has to die.

A small but telling early scene exemplifies one of the film’s main problems: As soon as Adam announces that he has cancer, his coworkers organize a party celebrating his life—something like a wake before his possible end. This is intended to be funny; drunk associates embarrass themselves with insensitive comments and questions to Adam. But it comes off as unbelievable and just plain odd. Isn’t this the kind of thing that only happens on a sitcom? Kyle’s incessant efforts to get Adam laid and/or stoned are in the same vein.

The actors try to smooth out these rough spots. Gordon-Levitt has already proven he can carry a film in “(500) Days of Summer” (2009), but here, as in “Inception” (2010), he is looking ever more the star. While his performance sometimes feels uncertain, he gets better as he goes along, displaying a lot of heart in all of his big scenes toward the end.

Kendrick, whose best role thus far has been in “Up in the Air” (2009), does not show much range here, but she burns a hole in the screen whenever she appears. A capable comedienne, she gets some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Anjelica Huston, who has not had a major role since “Choke” (2008), steals every scene she gets. If only she had a bigger part to play here. She walks off with one of the film’s finest lines, telling Katie of her son, “I smothered him because I love him.”

The young actors, who also include Bryce Dallas Howard in a weak role as Adam’s unfaithful girlfriend prior to Katie, seem to feed off of Huston’s energy and chops.

Cast

Adam – Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Kyle – Seth Rogen

Katie – Anna Kendrick

Diane – Anjelica Huston

Rachael – Bryce Dallas Howard

Credits

A Summit Entertainment release.

Directed by Jonathan Levine.

Written by Will Reiser.

Produced by Evan Goldberg, Nathan Kahane, Ben Karlin, Will Reiser, and Seth Gordon.

Cinematography, Terry Stacey.

Editing, Zene Baker.

Original Music, Michael Giacchino.