Making comedy out of tragedy is not quite as difficult as it sounds, since most good comedy is rooted in seriousness. “50/50,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cancer patient and Seth Rogen as his best buddy, tries to lighten the heavy and presumably make tragedy more bearable.
At least that’s the game plan. The high proportion of sitcom-ish humor to genuine laughs – about 70/30 I’d say – undercuts the film’s best intentions. It’s a genial movie about terror. But some real feeling does occasionally push through the synthetic situations. Perhaps that’s because the screenplay by Will Reiser is semiautobiographical.
Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) works in Seattle for NPR and discovers, to his astonishment, that the pain he has been experiencing in his back is caused by a rare cancer attached to his spinal column. Kyle (Rogen) tries his best to cheer his friend up. Misfit that he is, he also tries to parlay Adam’s condition into luring women for sympathy sex. This comes after Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), in a role that is too demonically drawn, proves less than true-blue.
Director Jonathan Levine keeps the blubbery factor at a minimum – perhaps to a fault. Whenever a moment of palpable fear obtrudes, rest assured it won’t be long before Kyle, or somebody, is dousing the damage. Rogen is often very funny, although it would be helpful if he didn’t always act like he knew he was funny. Better, or at least less blatant, are the comedic moments involving Adam in his chemotherapy sessions with two crusty oldsters, sympathetically played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer. The byplay in their scenes together has an offhanded grace underscoring the men’s fortitude.
Gordon-Levitt is an agreeably undemonstrative actor who plays well opposite the burbly Rogen. (They’re like a comedy team, classically mismatched physically and emotionally.) He also scores in his scenes with Anjelica Huston as Adam’s mother, Diane. Huston turns what might have been an overbearing cartoon into something much more than that. She’s overbearing all right, but you can also see the care and the fright and the love that propels her concern. Great actresses have a way of pulling the truth out of even the hoariest clichés.
Less successful are the scenes between Adam and his therapist, Katherine, played by Anna Kendrick in what sometimes looks like a recap of her role as the uptight fussbudget in “Up in the Air.” We know these two will eventually hook up, just as we know Adam’s girlfriend will prove unfaithful, or that not all of his chemo cohorts will make it. The film’s predictability dampens its best parts. Having decided to make a movie about a dreaded subject, the filmmakers too often retreat into the comfort zone of easy assurances and flip quips. Grade: B- (Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some drug use.)