50/50 is kind of movie where its performances make up for its flaws.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old who lives comfortably within the lines and with a fear of testing fate. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t drive. He doesn’t even cross the street when the “Don’t walk” sign is flashing and no cars are coming. Adam lives with his artist girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard) and has a kind of slovenly best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). All in all, his life is rather mundane until Adam is diagnosed with a malignant spinal tumor.
With his diagnosis, comes change and a wave of emotions that Adam is unprepared for. His mother (Anjelica Huston) wants to move in, despite already caring for Adam’s Alzheimer’s stricken father. Kyle wants Adam to milk his illness for everything it is worth. (Girls.) And Rachael, who was just not a sexually giving partner before, can’t handle the bad energy and is generally a terrible character.
There to help Adam navigate his frustrations is Katherine, his inexperienced therapist, played by Anna Kendrick. (Adam’s only her third patient so she’s got some growing to do, just like him.)
50/50 tries to see the humor in the disease and in the very human reactions people have to it. But the film never strays from touching on the realistic nature of cancer and the crippling affect it has on people. 50/50 is loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own bout with cancer and I imagine that Seth Rogen, Reiser’s real life best friend, is playing a version of himself. But the bromance-in-the-face-of-cancer 50/50 is billed as doesn’t hold up when Rogen enters into that too comfortable man-child role. I get it. Cancer is great set-up to a lot of really bad jokes. Though some scenes, like when Kyle aids Adam as he shaves his head, are great.
Because of this the movie’s best scenes are between Gordon-Levitt when he interacts with Kendrick and Huston. Adam’s relationship with his therapist Katherine shows how extreme awkwardness can be a blessing in disguise. With her smile and endearing charm, Kendrick is the perfect balance for Howard’s frigidity and Rogen’s signature brand of humor. And Huston, who is horribly underused for much of the movie, steals every scene she is in as Adam’s overbearing and emotional mother.
The common denominator holding 50/50 together is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. At times scenes, which work great a small vignettes (like the hair shaving scene) are just tossed in there. But Gordon-Levitt broods when he needs to broods, cries when he needs to cry, and laughs when he needs to laugh. It’s a great performance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings cohesiveness to a movie that it mostly lacks until the final moments.