50/50

2011, Movie, R, 100 mins

Review

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The majority of actors who have a television hit early on fail to parlay that success into a substantial film career once the show leaves the air. Sure, there are exceptions -- Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp come to mind -- but few actors have worked as hard to redefine their public perceptions as Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He shed his image as the youngest member of 3rd Rock From the Sun by consistently working with interesting writers and directors -- Spike Lee, Gregg Araki, Rian Johnson, Christopher Nolan -- and fearlessly tackling challenging roles in films as diverse as Hesher and (500) Days of Summer. With director Jonathan Levine’s poignant and funny 50/50, Gordon-Levitt should finally get the awards buzz he richly deserves.

He plays Adam, a 27-year-old public-radio employee who discovers he has cancer. As his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) tries to help him cope, his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) proves to be a less-than-ideal life partner for this particular crisis. All the while, Adam’s overprotective mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) tries to overcome her son’s continued attempts to keep her out of his life. As Adam begins to discover how hard it is to deal with his situation, and to maintain the various relationships in his life, he begins seeing a young counselor (Anna Kendrick), who might prove to be just as helpful personally as professionally.

Gordon-Levitt does something few actors ever manage in 50/50 -- he makes a nice, normal guy fascinating. By all accounts, Adam is a perfectly decent human being, aside from some mommy issues and a penchant for falling for questionable women. While his medical situation is dramatic, it’s something millions of others have had to face. It’s a vivid portrayal of a young man who slowly faces his own mortality, and as Adam’s stoic facade slowly erodes, he lashes out at his friends, his family, and himself, leading to a powerhouse scene with his mother just before he’s wheeled into surgery. Yet even during the most-powerful moment in the entire movie -- the kind of scene that gets shown during the listing of the nominees on awards shows -- Gordon-Levitt doesn’t overplay it at all. In every scene, he earns our empathy.

As great as he is, he doesn’t do it all by himself. Will Reiser’s emotionally rich script -- which is based on his own battle with cancer -- never hits a wrong note, and he finds the comedy in Adam’s life as easily as the drama. There are a couple of lovely scenes with Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall as a pair of older patients with whom Adam shares chemotherapy sessions, and Rogen modulates his overpowering charisma just enough to let us know that all his motormouthed energy is his character’s own way of dealing with his friend’s troubles.

Thirty years ago, Terms of Endearment pretty much defined how to do this kind of tonally challenging movie, presenting characters able to laugh through their tears while dealing with a life-threatening illness. By borrowing that template without slavishly copying it, and thanks to a pitch-perfect lead performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50 deserves to be compared with that Oscar-winning classic. leave a comment --Perry Seibert

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