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Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011

50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen star in bittersweet comedy

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Adam runs along the waterfront with alt-rock on his iPod in the tone-setting intro for 50/50. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) might be the only early morning runner who actually stops for traffic lights, jogging in place on the empty street corner and waiting as red turns to green. A hyper-cautious 27-year-old, Adam never even learned to drive because car accidents kill. Ironically, his neatly planned, safety-first existence unravels when he's diagnosed with a malignant tumor. He has tried to avoid all danger in life, but still can't escape the possibility of death. Cancer kills, too.

A bittersweet indie comedy, 50/50 confronts situations mainstream Hollywood would never address. Cancer? "That doesn't make sense," Adam tells the doctor. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I recycle." Those lines would have been laugh-out-loud if delivered by Woody Allen, but Gordon-Levitt is more like Bob Newhart's Millennial grandson, delivering funny lines as if they were registered mail. His puppy-dog face, however, is well suited for tragedy. Director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser maintain the right balance between humor and sadness, walking the line without wobbling into cheap laughs or sloppy sentimentality.

Adam's blustering best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), provides the familiar hook—the conventional comic relief of the goofy but can-do sidekick. Kyle's way with the women isn't as winning as he thinks, but, unlike Adam, he at least has a way; he'll blurt out thoughts most people would couch in Hallmark diplomacy. When Adam Googles his condition and finds that his form of cancer leads to only a 50% survival rate, Kyle says: "50/50? If you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds!"

The game of survival gets off to a rough start. Adam's flighty artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) proves unreliable. His domineering mother (Anjelica Huston), a compendium of wisdom from "Good Morning America," already has her hands full. Adam's father has disappeared into Alzheimer's. His physician-assigned therapist (Anna Kendrick), a 24-year-old trainee, offers little support as she recites memorized passages from psychology textbooks. When she tries to put her hand on his forearm in a comforting gesture, Adam shrinks away. "It's like being slapped by a sea otter," he tells her.

Running through 50/50 is the anxiety that no one entirely knows what they're talking about when it comes to potentially terminal illnesses, but that doesn't stop anyone from talking. The medical marijuana dispensed in the overcast Pacific Northwest setting helps chill the sickness caused by chemo and brings Adam together with a pair of older cancer victims. And that's the bottom line: Without the idea that someone cares, and is willing to try to help, the chances of survival are less than the hope of a sunny day in Seattle.