Can a movie about somebody sick with cancer be funny? The short answer is: yes, it can be funny, but it better not be a comedy. "50/50", starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an every(young)man radio editor from Seattle who gets diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, was written autobiographically by screenwriter Will Reiser, and let me assure you, it is not a comedy, but a deeply moving drama -- although it is, at times, quite charming.
It's got considerable bromantic chemistry between Gordon-Levitt -- who gives his finest performance since "The Lookout" -- and Seth Rogan as his best bud Kyle, a typical post-Apatow man-child with a taste for weed and bar skanks. After Adam (Gordon-Levitt's character) gets blindsided with his newfound illness, Kyle tries to get him looking on the bright side. "50/50! If you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds." But Adam's journey from then on is loaded mostly with existential grimness.
Even the film's aesthetic has a de-saturated, hospital-wall anemia to it that, while never too blatant, certainly puts the viewer in Adam's sickly headspace -- his colorless haze of fear and doubt -- his loneliness. Which is audacious and astute, as the film is wise enough to understand that dealing with a deadly illness -- like the singularity of cancer, with its notorious treatments and their awful side effects -- is perhaps the most personal experience one can have.
For most of the film, Adam feels utterly alone, on a journey of awakening through fatigue. Yet the film also, with its speckled bright spots of positivity, suggests that our loved ones battle with us, in their own way. Adam's got Kyle, with whom he shares his medicinal joints, and the two go bar hopping with the intention of using Adam's cancer as a pickup line. His mother (Angelica Huston) extends her assistance, but is rebuffed. Never before has being there for someone else looked so needy. The girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), only sticks around because she thinks it's the right thing to do, rather than recognizing Adam's struggle as her own, like any loving girlfriend would.
Rounding out Team Adam is novice counselor Katie (Anna Kendrick) who's so by the book her advice comes off as cold and punctilious as opposed to warm and insightful -- something Adam so desperately needs. Their relationship blossoms into something more than doctor-patient in the film's only real crowd-pleasingly false element. It's an easy pairing, so the film ignores the fact that vulnerable people often fall in love with their therapists (it's called transference, and it's not healthy). Also, considering the passion between the two throughout the film is as bloodless as Adam's pasty cheekbones, their Hollywood courtship is most certainly tacked on.
But other than that blip, "50/50" handles a rough topic with a tremendous amount of grace, humor and essential humanism. We don't care what happens to Adam because he has cancer and cancer is scary; we care about Adam because we genuinely like him. And that's the reason why "50/50" succeeds: it takes a touchy cultural anxiety and brings it down to earth with characters we recognize and would sympathize with regardless. They're touching and funny, but not too funny -- despite what the trailers may suggest, this is not a comedy.