Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde, Andrew Airlie, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall, Donna Yamamoto, Sugar Lyn Beard, Yee Jee Tso, Sarah Smyth, Peter Kelamis, Jessica Parker Kennedy
Written by: Will Reiser
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/12/2011

50/50 (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Healing with Laughter

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the old days, people used to cry at movies about doomed relationships. Now they cry at other things, among them cancer movies. Just about every year, we get at least one or two cancer movies. Just last week there was Tom Tykwer's 3, and before that, One Day, Beginners, In a Better World, Biutiful, My Sister's Keeper, Elegy, and more. Sometimes cancer is a subplot, designed to give the movie some emotional and heft, and other times it's the main subject. But rarely has anyone tried to stuff cancer into a comedy-drama, and one somehow remains prickly and funny through every moment of its running time.

Screenwriter Will Reiser, a real-life friend of Seth Rogen, and a behind-the-scenes writer/producer in American comedy, loosely based the new 50/50 on his own life. The main character is Adam, a fastidious, upright reporter on a public radio station. The opening scene perfectly illustrates his temperament; he's jogging through the almost deserted, morning city streets and dutifully stops for a red light. While he waits and jogs in place, another jogger dashes across the street, against the red. Adam thinks about it, looks around for traffic, but stays put and waits for the green.

Apparently, Rogen was always set to play Kyle, the comical best buddy. Kyle chauffeurs his pal around, since Adam is too anxious to apply for his own driver's license. Kyle also happily uses Adam's cancer to pick up women, though he passes the test of true friendship with a well-placed visual cue in the third act.

There's also romance afoot, though it's highly doubtful that such stirrings went on in real life. Adam is having trouble with his current, gorgeous, shallow artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who won't kiss him while she's brushing her teeth. Later, Adam meets a therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is clearly The Right Girl, since they get off on the wrong foot together. She's a student therapist, continually saying and doing all the wrong things for her practice, though they turn out to be the right things for the patient.

Directed by Jonathan Levine, who made the banal The Wackness (2008), the new movie nicely juggles Adam's various relationships with precious few hospital scenes. Aside from Kyle and the women, he meets two foul-mouthed, warm-hearted older buddies during his chemotherapy sessions, played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, and spends some extra time with them. Angelica Huston plays his worried mother with just the right amount of weight, though Serge Houde has a thankless role as Adam's father, suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's; he seems underdirected, looking around as if he were perfectly satisfied not knowing what to do.

Really, though, it's Rogen's Kyle that makes the movie work. Gordon-Levitt is one of the finest actors going today, and he works hard to make his character's arc -- from fastidious and uptight to life-loving and laid-back -- work. But Rogen's constant quips have the power to disarm almost every potentially weepy situation. Even in the climactic surgery scene, he knows exactly what to say, just at the right moment. Indeed, almost every cancer movie, or indeed any real-life cancer patient, deserves to have someone like Kyle around to brighten the mood.

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