Andy Bockelman: ‘50/50’: Half funny, half heartwarming

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

“50/50”

3 out of 4 stars

100 minutes

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard.

It takes a mighty talented group of people to turn one of the worst things in the world into something humorous, but the cast of “50/50” manages to beat the odds.

Adam’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) life could be better, but it could also be much worse. He’s got a job that’s more or less rewarding, a best friend (Seth Rogen) who’s usually supportive of him and a girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) he loves.

Well, pretty much.

The only real problem in his life is a recurrent backache, which he is certain is nothing serious. A visit to the doctor reveals the source of the pain to be a rare form of cancer in Adam’s spine for which the survival rate is 50 percent.

As he goes into treatment for the disease, Adam doesn’t know how to feel about it. Though everybody around him gives him words of encouragement, the actual process isn’t something anyone can understand, let alone help him deal with.

Gordon-Levitt’s go-to role as the sensitive guy who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the world is amplified considerably by his ongoing struggle to keep a stiff upper lip. Yet, somehow his hangdog expression underplays the seriousness of what he’s experiencing, trying to look at a life-threatening condition as if it were nothing more than a stubbed toe.

In his second attempt of the year at making a comedy about something that’s not supposed to be funny, Rogen is much more in his element than in “The Green Hornet.”

As his best buddy, Kyle, he keeps up Adam’s spirits as best he can. And though he tends to use his friend’s condition as a talking point while hitting on random girls when they’re out and about, his heart is still in the right place.

Also trying their best to be compassionate are Adam’s worrywart mother (Anjelica Huston) and a psychologist (Anna Kendrick) whose patient history is minimal to say the least.

But, at least they genuinely care. Howard takes on a tough part as Adam’s girl, Rachael, who quickly pledges to be by his side as he goes through treatment and just as swiftly fails to follow through.

Of course, it’s one thing to be a flake by missing a pickup after a chemotherapy appointment. It’s a whole different department to cheat on your cancer-riddled boyfriend as he spends his nights alternating between vomiting and curling up in the fetal position.

In any story of someone facing an illness, there’s a razor thin line between harsh reality and needless dramatic melancholia.

Screenwriter Will Reiser bases the story on his own life while combating cancer with assistance by real-life pal Rogen, and the authenticity truly shines through.

It’s impossible to escape a tinge of the bittersweet, but there’s more a sense of overcoming boredom, as Adam is forced to quit his job and has less and less to look forward to as days drag by with fellow patients (Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer) the only people to trade stories with. Luckily enough he has Kyle to liven things up, by trying to get him out into the world once in a while, finding him a new romantic interest and getting him a prescription for medical marijuana.

Let’s not even mention the preventative measure of shaving his head with some questionable clippers.

Amid the wacky moments of “50/50,” the personal bits of Adam’s journey take precedence without detracting from the humor its stars convey excellently, whether it’s Adam’s malaise, Kyle’s combination of helpfulness and obnoxiousness or Rachael’s understandable yet regrettable fickleness.

As for the sterile surroundings, one wouldn’t think a hospital’s oncology ward could be anything but depressing, but anything’s better when you throw in some pot brownies.

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