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‘50/50’ gets it half right: Frat-boy comedy about cancer has its moments but is too quick to go for coarse joke

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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If you’re feeling charitable, “50/50’’ may strike you as a brave attempt to broaden a Judd Apatow-style raunchfest to include death and disease along with the usual sex, drugs, and bromance. If you’re not in the right mood, you may feel it stuffs cancer into a small, inappropriate box. The truth splits the difference: Too pat and contrived to be the Oscar bell-ringer early reports have claimed, “50/50’’ is most affecting when it shows callow young dudes struggling to come to terms with the ultimate party crasher.

So, yes, it’s about cancer and it’s a comedy - or, rather, the film paints a serious subject with a coat of nervous frat-boy guffaws. Based very loosely on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own battle with a rare sarcoma, “50/50’’ casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam Lerner, a 27-year-old producer for Seattle Public Radio who goes into a doctor’s appointment with a sore back and comes out with a 50 percent chance of survival.

When Adam gets the news, director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness’’) has the sound bottom out and the background go blurry, a hackneyed cinematic trick that still works. Less clear is what we’re supposed to think about the doctor (Andrew Airlie), a cold fish who can’t even make eye contact with his patient. There’s an entire arena of social commentary there that “50/50’’ glances off without actually confronting. (In general, the medical community remains in the far background of this movie.)

Anyway, why waste time when you can get down to the business at hand: jokes about blow jobs and medicinal marijuana. Adam is a tightly wound worrywart (Gordon-Levitt, one of our most likable young stars, plays the part without glamour or ego), but his best friend is a gravel-voiced party animal named Kyle. Even if Seth Rogen didn’t co-produce the film and wasn’t a close pal of screenwriter Reiser, he’d have to be here, since, for better and for worse, he’s our national Id by now.

Kyle blurts out all the things you’re not supposed to say about cancer - its uses as a chick magnet, for one thing - while being there for his bro in matters of hair shaving (a very funny scene) and transportation to and from chemotherapy. Adam doesn’t drive, a trait that hints at an infantilism that “50/50,’’ again, doesn’t explore. The movie tiptoes around its most terrifying idea, that young men in today’s culture can put off maturity for so long that it’s possible to die before you grow up.

During chemo, Adam befriends two other patients, a crusty old pothead (Philip Baker Hall) and a gentle, wise beanpole played by Matt Frewer. They’re potential role models for the hero’s emotional journey, but they too get pushed to the background by Rogen’s braying Kyle; whenever “50/50’’ threatens to turn too serious, it gets a shot of bad-lad coarseness.

That’s probably why the women’s roles are a mess. Adam’s girlfriend when the film opens is a high-strung painter (Bryce Dallas Howard) who crumples under the strain of caring for him and whom the movie quickly brands and dismisses as a cheating ho. Anjelica Huston has a few nice scenes as the hero’s fretful mother, but Jessica Parker Kennedy is just a fill-in-the-blanks bimbo as a bar pickup turned on by the idea of sleeping with a terminal case. (I’m making it sound more interesting than it plays.)

Even more disastrous is the way the role of Dr. Katie McKay, an awkward young hospital therapist who finds herself falling for her patient, defeats Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air’’), an intensely talented actress whom some of us have been watching with fascination since 2003’s “Camp.’’ Kendrick gives a truly bad performance here - she’s a self-conscious actress playing a self-conscious person and getting her signals all mixed up - and it’s unclear whether she has been hung out to dry by her director or if it’s just that the character makes no sense whatsoever. (But what’s a cancer movie without a love interest?)

“50/50’’ stays with the boys, and that’s its charm and its failing. Gordon-Levitt stepped in to take the lead role at the last minute after James McAvoy left the project, but audiences have come to trust this star so much - he’s the kind of smart, centered performer we’d like to think we’d have as a friend - that we willingly follow him into the dark places “50/50’’ goes. If only the movie weren’t so scared of the dark.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

Seth Rogen

Seth Rogen's roles

Sex symbol he's not. But there's something decidedly lovable about Seth Rogen.

50/50 Directed by: Jonathan Levine

Written by: Will Reiser

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 99 minutes

Rated: R (language throughout, sexual content, lots of medicinal weed)

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