Reviewed by: David Graham

Cancer. Serious as cancer. That's usually the approach for film-makers trying to tackle our age's biggest killer, perversely also making it Hollywood's biggest award-winner, perhaps only after war and ugly women. The cruel twist here is that the victim is young and healthy-living, playing on our fear that none of us are safe while reminding us that we should live like we might not see tomorrow.

Sounds like a drag? You bet. So young director Jonathan Levine automatically earns kudos for taking a light touch to such normally heavy-handed material, without shying away from its inherent concerns. In this regard he's helped (and in one instance maybe hindered) by a varied cast of young hopefuls and seasoned veterans, but despite desperately trying to appear otherwise, 50/50 still plays it a little safe.

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Adam is a successful audio engineer, whose relationship with his stunning girlfriend is about to move to the next level. He's fastidious to a fault, careful with how he lives in every regard, so it comes as a shock to be told he has a rare form of spinal cancer. Initial attempts to put on a brave face give way to a numbing sense of defeat, while the constant worrying of those closest to him brings as much pain as support. Even his childhood friend Kyle is failing to offer much in the way of constructive companionship, exploiting his pal's plight to pick up chicks and score medicinal marijuana. The reassuring attitude of other sufferers comes as a bit of respite for Adam, but just as he's starting to come to terms with his situation, the gravity of it sneaks up on him unawares.

TV show The Big C might have beaten him to the punch, but it's still a brave move for scriptwriter Will Reiser to try to marry the terminal disease weepie with broad comedy, especially since the story is based on his own experiences. Unfortunately for us, that experience involved real-life best bud Seth Rogen, playing Seth Rogen for the umpteenth time and bulldozing through any notion of subtlety with the sort of boorish smut that would surely see anyone in their right mind disown him as a 'friend' faster than he can utter the handful of expletives that make up his whole vocabulary.

Depending on your tolerance for his puerile schtick, his presence in this film may make or break it. There's no getting around him, he's just there all the way through, spouting would-be adroit obscenity and condescending pop-culture references. This may be the point of his character, but 100 minutes in his company is still a bitter pill to swallow, especially by this point in his career (especially having performed the same function in the almost identical but horribly bloated Funny People).

Rogen even threatens to put his leading man - the ever-reliable Joseph Gordon Levitt - in the shade, but thankfully the Mysterious Skin star is a model of restraint and simmering anger throughout, subtly cycling through stages of denial and acceptance until he's overcome by his own mortality in one of the most emotionally raw breakdowns since Elliot Page's similar moment of realisation in Juno. Also excellent but tragically under-used is Anjelica Huston as a stereotypically smothering mom, who steals scenes every time she appears through a delicately balanced mix of comedic simpering and genuine, gut-wrenching concern. Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer crop up as comedy-relief chemo patients, whose weed-addled outlook on their condition makes for a refreshing, if ridiculous, counterbalance to the usual worthy battlers of this fare.

However, the film does get bogged down in repetitive psychological dreariness, compounded by the many alt-rock-soundtracked montages. Several of the script's situations also ring false; what kind of friend would throw a workplace party for someone who's just found out they're dying? Who the hell would invite their mother over for dinner to break the news? It's obviously meant to be absurd and awkward but it's still a bit of a stretch, while Huston's moving reaction in the latter scene is made a little uncomfortable by being directed for uneasy laughs. Elsewhere, the romantic subplot involving Anna Kendrick's student shrink sinks by lurching unrealistically from animosity to affection, while Adam's Alzheimers-suffering father seems a poorly sketched afterthought compared to the better-balanced approach the recent Friends With Benefits took in handling the same subject matter.

Some of the best scenes involve Bryce Dallas Howard's pretentious art-grad girlfriend, who Levine isn't afraid to paint in a particularly unflattering light. We're obviously meant to see her as the epitome of selfish modern woman, herself a form of life-sapping disease who only wants to be with Adam because she doesn't know how to leave without feeling bad about it. However, her very tangible fallibility makes her a much more interesting and sympathetic character than those played by most of her cutesy, wacky co-stars, and all of her actions are entirely understandable.

God knows if this is based on a real woman; there's a very strong sense that Adam's uncharacteristically bitter rebuke to her grovelling return are a deliberate echo of Reiser's own feelings towards someone, but these confrontational scenes aren't as cathartic as they should be. In fact, they're somewhat pathetic. When a man's best response to relationship issues is to swear as filthily as he can at a woman (as our leads do here), you have to wonder about his emotional age and intellectual capacity.

Like several genre-splicing and convention-lampooning comedies of late, the film tries to have its cake and eat it, but this can leave both sides of the recipe feeling half-baked. There's a significant tonal imbalance throughout; both the comedy and the drama can feel laboured, and by the end some viewers will feel cheated by how much the film has tried to avoid cliches without actually subverting any of them.

It'd take a hard heart not to soften to the deployment of a wonderfully-named dog, and the climactic scenes of touch-and-go crisis are definitely sob-worthy thanks to the best efforts of the impressive cast and Levine's assured direction, but 50/50 is sadly neither as irreverently hilarious or as profoundly heart-warming as it aspires to be.

Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2011
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50/50 packshot
An original story of friendship, love and survival - and finding humour in the most unlikely places.
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Director: Jonathan Levine

Writer: Will Reiser

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick

Year: 2011

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: USA


London 2011

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