After his critically ballyhooed turn in the 2007 dramatic thriller The Lookout, it seemed as if stardom was right around the corner for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, previously best known as a regular on TV's Third Rock From the Sun. Unfortunately, aside from his lead in the underrated (500) Days of Summer, his most exciting performance since was an acrobatic song-and-dance rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh" while hosting Saturday Night Live two years ago.
Gordon-Levitt's greatest strength as an actor is also his largest impediment to celebrity. He prefers to inhabit a role rather than inflate it, plying an acting style that is unpretentious and nuanced. These attributes serve him well in 50/50, a comic drama about a 27-year-old's struggle with spinal cancer. The film's title represents the survival odds of Gordon-Levitt's character, Adam Lerner, a Seattle NPR staffer and aspiring documentary filmmaker. But the title also represents the approximate division of the film between medical drama and bawdy humor in Will Reiser's semiautobiographical script.
In the hands of less capable filmmakers and actors, this balancing act between somber sentimentality and Apatow-esque comedy could nosedive into something ill-advised and even offensive. The greatest testament to 50/50 is that its two halves are integrated in a way that elevates the whole.
The film, directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), is concerned not only with the impact of the illness on Adam, but also on his circle of intimates, who are played by Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston and Anna Kendrick. Reiser treads some familiar cancer territory, but he also shares insights only a survivor could tell, such as the complex dynamics of the support group, new friends who might pass on as quickly as you get to know them.
The film's most glaring misstep is its treatment of the women in Adam's life. Most notable is Rachael (Howard), whose indefensible response to the sudden pressure of caring for a terminally sick boyfriend is nevertheless grounded in genuine emotions worth exploring. Instead, she gets called the c-word and ridiculed as a personal and professional failure. His mother (Huston) displays histrionics that barely subside for a late, fleeting expression of motherly concern. And Reiser seems oblivious to the fact that Katherine (Kendrick), the story's ostensible heroine, oversteps the ethical boundary separating doctor and patient.
The tonal duality of 50/50 is more than a gimmick. It's the language of ironic distance spoken by young moviegoers who largely have not faced their mortality. When Adam, on the eve of a make-or-break surgical procedure, locks himself in a car and finally unleashes some primal therapy, all the cackles that precede it—along with Gordon-Levitt's talent—make the moment feel all the more real.