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Life Lessons

by Laura Leon on October 6, 2011

Directed by Jonathan Levine

A movie about dying, especially dying young, can be a hard sell. Everybody loves Brian’s Song, but it’s not exactly the film you want to watch to get your mind off your troubles at work. So 50/50, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old NPR employee who develops malignant spinal cancer, is something of a triumph, in that it deals with its somber subject matter with grace and a surprising amount of humor.

Adam is the kind of passive sort who waits on a red light, even when there are absolutely no cars in sight, and it’s this passivity that largely informs his illness. His doctor seems a bit of a cold fish, not bothering to look at his patient as he dictates his prognosis, but Adam apparently feels no need to object, let alone seek out a new provider. (The movie, written by Will Reiser, consciously avoids any attempt to analyze, satirize or make any sort of commentary on the health-care system or the practitioners who work within it.) Adam’s arty girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) treats him like a piece of the furniture—used at that—offering to help him face his illness, but just as likely to forget to pick him up from chemo. When Adam’s best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen) or his fellow chemo patients call him on this passivity, this acceptance of less than what he deserves, he basically ignores them. Given this, it would seem hard to root for the young man, but Gordon-Levitt’s natural amiability draws the audience in.

While Adam stays his course, only simmering to anger and to out-and-out fear late in the movie, his friends and associates react in ways decidedly more understandable. Kyle hides his panic with bombastic good humor; it’s Rogan’s usual brand of bromantic comedy, but it works here, and doesn’t disguise his character’s enormous good will. Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) has a tendency to make everything about her, but the fact that she’s caring for her Alzheimer-patient husband on top of facing the prospect of losing her only child allows us to see her with more dimension.

The best part of the movie is Anna Kendrick’s Katherine, a therapist in training. Her youth and lack of experience are a serious detriment to her ability to properly treat Adam, but these factors imbue their scenes with amazing verve and sparkle. Kendrick fully embraces the fumbling nature of her character, and the moments when she’s on screen are the movie’s best. The subtle stirrings of improbable romance amid the cold, clinical setting of a cancer ward are just part of what makes 50/50 so special; the other is its refusal to make its sick protagonist into some sort of Make a Wish poster child.