Jonathan Levine recycles familiar actors in uncomfortable cancer comedy

Summit Entertainment/Courtesy
Levine’s ‘50/50’ tries to put a rom-com spin on serious illness

Selling a movie about having cancer in your mid-20s is a tough thing to do. Sugar-coating one of the most depressing of subjects is a daunting task for any writer/director, but writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine have taken a crack at it. But perhaps they used a little too much sugar.

“50/50” is a romantic comedy disguised as a serious think piece on the trials of a young man suddenly getting a rare kind of spinal cancer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a youth in dire straits, suddenly faced with the imminent death at a time when his life has finally begun. A quirky youngster who fears driving and has lived a substance-free existence, Gordon-Levitt’s character makes “50/50” look geared up to deal with a plethora of heavy karmic issues. And then the other characters show up.

The majority of the actors are typecast into portraying roles audiences have seen them in many times before. Anna Kendrick (“Twilight,” “Scott Pilgrim,” “Up in the Air”) is a pixie-stick of a therapist who seeks to help Adam cope with his impending mortality, but devolves into merely trying to cheer him up in the face of his unstoppable brooding. Seth Rogen (“Pineapple Express,” “Knocked Up”) plays his stoner buddy Kyle, basically a carbon copy of his role from “Pineapple Express”. While Adam and Kyle make a funny pair, the film falls short in terms of the dramatic believability of the friendship. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does all the heavily lifting drama-wise, especially noteworthy considering the cast includes legendary actress Anjelica Huston. As Adam’s hysterical mom, Houston’s role is played as more of a stunt performance played for laughs than as a multi-dimensional maternal figure.

As far as the rom-com script goes, Adam must overcome many of the typical pitfalls that define the genre, including the cheating girlfriend and the nice-girl therapist who for Adam’s holier-than-thou act would be a perfect match. While “50/50” doesn’t make much of a cohesive whole, many scenes are definitely memorable, if not downright touching. Philip Baker Hall (who played the hilarious police chief in “Rush Hour”), cameos as a pot-brownie eating cancer patient, who offers the sort of long-in-the-tooth advice young Adam needs. Serge Houde shows as Adam’s father who has Alzheimer’s, yet Adam’s family is a missed opportunity within the film, as Huston’s over-the-top theatrics usurp any chance of parallels to drawn with Adam’s own situation.

Luckily Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the kind of heavy-hitting young actor who has the chops the keep the sinking ship afloat, a point proven all the more by the fact that the rest of the cast doesn’t do him any favors. For a film that starts off resembling “500 Days of Summer,” Levitt keeps things blacker than black in his portrayal of Adam, and in a crucial scene before his life-determining surgery, achieves the sort of haunting dramatic portrayal that temporarily lifts the film above its means.

Ultimately, “50/50” is made up of disparate parts, Frankensteining heavy-issues with to a rom-com plot so well worn you know how the film will end within the first 15 minutes. What really derails “50/50” in terms of the subject matter’s gravitas that the film takes place solely in Movieland, where the audience sees what’s coming a mile away and enjoys it anyway. Striving for edge, “50/50” instead comes up as a conglomerate of many past popular indie films, many of which these actors partook in. But that same modus operandi fails to give the work a clear and succinct thesis, if only because having cancer doesn’t really suck that much when you live inside a movie.