Strong cast, realistic screenplay make cancer flick a success

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen star in Jonathan Levine’s cancer comedy “50/50.” (Photo coutesy of Chris Helcermanas/Benge Summit Entertainment)

By no means is it a stretch to call director Jonathan Levine’s career troubled. After all, his debut film “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” has yet to be released on American shores, and his sophomore effort, “The Wackness,” had a big buzz out at Sundance but ultimately floundered upon release. However, “50/50” is not only Levine’s first film to achieve a genuine theatrical release, but it’s also easily his best, a moving examination of screenwriter Will Reiser’s struggle with cancer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a Reiser surrogate slapped with a cancer diagnoses that gives him a 50 percent chance of survival. The supporting cast is composed of those affected by his diagnosis, from best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), as well as rookie grief therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick).

The film’s central relationship is between Kyle and Adam, and Rogen, a real-life friend of Reiser’s, is essentially playing himself here. It’s quite possibly Rogen’s best performance, and Kyle is kind of a self-serving jerk at times, not the constantly supportive best friend that often pops up in this kind of film. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt have a genuine chemistry and an easy energy together and many of the film’s best moments are between the two.

To be fair, the rest of the supporting cast is by no means slacking. Kendrick has been pigeonholed into playing brittle, emotionally unavailable types (even getting an Oscar nomination for such a role in “Up in the Air”), but her character here has softer edges, and it’s a warm, interesting performance. Huston is in the film much less than the rest of the cast, but she gets one of the big gut-punch moments late in the second act. Her relationship with Gordon-Levitt’s Adam is realistically complicated, with just the perfect balance of love and antagonism. As Adam’s girlfriend, Howard walks a fine line between vaguely sympathetic and absolutely repugnant, and the film wisely avoids classifying her either way.

Since “50/50” comes from such a personal place for Reiser, the film feels natural and honest and even when the it goes for big emotional moments, the vibe is never manipulative or cheap. Much of this is thanks to Gordon-Levitt, who gives perhaps his best performance yet as Adam. Levitt brings a potent mix of fear, courage and humor to the role, and more or less commands “50/50”’s balancing act between laughs and tears.

If there’s one weak aspect of the film, it’s the final moments. While the film doesn’t tie all of its loose ends up in a perfect bow, the moment it chooses to end on feels a little too trite and doesn’t make a ton of sense for the characters. Even so, it’s one weak note in a film full of strong ones, and Levine does some very good, understated work, letting the story take precedence over directorial style. Michael Giacchino, whose musical scores could easily be characterized as overbearing (even when they’re wonderful), works with equal restraint and his music is mostly used to punctuate a few of the film’s strongest moments.

“50/50” is a film that surely deserves some serious Oscar attention, for Gordon-Levitt’s performance, for Reiser’s screenplay and a case could even be made for Anna Kendrick in the Best Supporting Actress race. Even though the film doesn’t end on the strong, honest and emotionally resonant moments it shines in, so much of the film is beautifully written and acted that a weak ending is just an unsatisfying last bite in an utterly magnificent sandwich.

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Comedy, cancer balanced in movie