The worst result of a bad mattress I’ve ever seen

Real-life inspiration aside, the latest of several movies entitled 50/50 manages to deliver not only laughs, but competent drama.  This may seem like a herculean task in a film featuring Seth Rogen, but lest we forget, Donnie Darko also had him in it.

Rogen’s presence is a welcome one, being the comic relief of the film as well as the fictional counterpart to his real-life role as Will Reiser’s close friend.  The cast is captained by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who provides the “dram” half of the dramedy.  He plays Adam Lerner, a radio host who, despite his almost obsessively healthy lifestyle, is diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer.  His girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), prematurely agrees to take care of him, having no idea what she’s in for, and things go quite badly for the relationship when she experiences even the first level of Adam’s sickness.  Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston) has almost no one left, seeing as her husband (Serge Houde) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Rounding out the cast is the adorable Anna Kendrick, who plays Katherine, Adam’s young therapist.

Katherine is the film’s breath of fresh air, however obvious it may be that she and Adam are headed for an unethical romantic relationship the first time she gives him a ride home.  She provides what I suspect is one of the film’s most meaningful lines – “I’m not good at getting rid of stuff” – when Adam comments on her disaster of a car.  Kyle (Rogen) attempts to support Adam while also using his cancer to meet women, which leads to some funny moments, and Adam’s mother smothers him with care, despite his refusal to call her back most of the time.  These tough situations, along with Adam’s worsening condition, lead to some great conflicts and build to some heart-wrenching moments.  Interestingly, Adam’s character isn’t incredibly likable when the story begins; he seems to loosen up and spread his wings after his diagnosis.  Speaking of which, the doctor who gives Adam the news does so in such a bored, routine manner that he might be a janitor mopping the floor.  I was stunned to see Adam return to him later.  As Roger Ebert said in his review, “would it kill the son of a bitch to make [the odds] 60/40?”

The film relies on the concept itself – a young person becoming sick and dying – in order to deliver its primary drama.  If you know anyone who has had cancer, especially through the later stages, you know it’s far worse than portrayed here (although you may chalk it up to the fact that this is a feel-good film and, if you want to go this route, that Adam’s cancer was operable).  In addition, the inclusion of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father feels thrown in, as it doesn’t seem to affect Adam very much (I think he only says two lines to his father in the whole film), and might better serve a film centering around Diane, as he is largely her responsibility.

One of the best moments of the film is the convergence of all the people who orbit Adam throughout the film (other than Rachel, who is ousted in an emotionally-confused and rather mean-spirited scene on Adam’s porch).

I am surprised Adam lasts as long as he does before throwing a screaming fit.  Scenes like this provide some real tear-inducing moments, which is commendable for a film pitched as a feel-good comedy.  The story ends in the perfect moment, an opportunity most films miss, with Katherine posing a question to Adam, a question all film heroes must face when their adventures end.  I think Adam might be one character who knows how to answer.

50/50 (2011); written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen and Anjelica Huston.