This movie is going to struggle to find an audience, but for the viewer willing to adjust expectation, it’s well worth the visit.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old radio station employee in Seattle . He lives with his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), an aspiring artist who wants to make it as a painter who fills studio galleries with her original compositions, but Adam seems more comfortable with his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who hates Rachael, anyway. Kyle is one of those off-the-cuff kind of guys who always says exactly what he’s thinking, whether it’s profane, serene, inappropriately intimate, or casually profound. He also works at the same radio station, but more on the sales and marketing end, whereas Adam is a programmer who’s working on a new piece about volcanoes. Everything seems copacetic, until finally Adam goes to see the doctor about the mysterious pain he’s suddenly been experiencing, and he receives the worst news possible: it’s cancer, it’s already spread, and there’s not much they can do, other than aggressive chemotherapy and hope for the best.
Being a typical Gen X-er, Adam first looks up his disease on the Internet, where the ubiquitous Dr. Google informs him that his particular type of diagnosis gives him about a 50/50 chance of survival (never mind that the physician himself seemed much less encouraging). His buddy Kyle thinks this is a grand opportunity to “make it” with the ladies on pure sympathy, but Adam is the kind of guy who is loyal to Rachael, until she proves that not only is she not much support during his treatments (she’ll drop him off, but not go inside with him, because of the “negative energy” in there), she’s already begun to distance herself emotionally. She buys him a dog so she’ll feel less guilty about her own emotional abandonment. (Bryce Dallas Howard is turning anathema into an art form, with her concurrent loathsome role in “The Help.”)
The funereal internist had recommended a personal counselor (interestingly enough, the word “chaplain” was never mentioned), and when Adam decides that might not be a bad idea, he draws someone named Katie (Anna Kendrick) who’s even younger than he is. He asks her if she shouldn’t be 60-something, wearing earth tones. She says it’s a teaching hospital, and she’s working on her doctorate, and the experience will help her write her dissertation (he finally extracts from her that he’s her 3rd patient ever). Thus begins a rather rocky and awkward series of exchanges, including about the use of meditation music, the significance of her putting her hand on his arm, why he won’t return his Mother’s phone calls, and what happened with the girlfriend.
Somehow, in this offbeat movie, they manage to continually inject humor, which keeps this terminal illness context from being too somber and pedantic. The sequence with the guys in the treatment room smoking medicinal marijuana together is nothing short of hilarious. But the specter of Death looms large over all the gallows humor. Kyle turns out to be that rarest of friends, the one who will still throw around his ribald and risqué jokes, even while demonstrating the kind of loyalty that is just not going to let him die alone.
“50/50” handles a macabre subject with a deft combination of emotional poignancy and compelling personal bravado and irreverent bawdy dialogue. The trouble is that the guys who want action/adventure or sci-fi will stay away in droves, the women who want romance are not anticipating any kind of “happily ever after” (and as the opposite of “chick flick,” the females characters are secondary, boorish, irrelevant, or otherwise easily dismissed). It’s not for children, and older adults will probably be offput by the drug use and profane language. So who’s left? Well, you, dear reader, should you choose to accept this moviegoing adventure.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas