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Movie Review: 50/50

The odds favor your liking
50/50
Genres: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 99 min
MPAA rating: R
Release Date: 2011-09-30
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

“Depend upon it, sir,” said Samuel Johnson. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Proof of that idea surfaces in “50/50,” where radio copy writer Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns at 27 that he has spinal cancer, and the odds of surviving the inevitable operation are about even. He re-evaluates everything about himself – work, relationships, goals, lifestyle – with the idea that final choices are being thrust upon him.

Yet the film is most interesting when it shows the ways others “concentrate” themselves, as he grows sicker.

His mother (Anjelica Huston) must decide whether to be overprotective or respectfully supportive. His girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) must choose whether to get his back or get out of town. His new grief counselor (Anna Kendrick) wavers between professional detachment and longed-for intimacy. His best buddy (Seth Rogen) must finally learn how to behave like a mature adult, if he can.

Though the boys-only poster and the tagline – “It takes a pair to beat the odds” – suggest some kind of a buddy dramedy, director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Eisner deliver something different.

Yes, there are crass jokes in the first hour, as slacker Kyle (Rogen) encourages Adam to use his disease to get pity sex from strangers. Later, Kyle selfishly tries to keep women from getting close to his pal in Adam’s potential last days.

Yet the movie deepens in the second half. Eisner based Adam on someone he knew extremely well, so the unsentimental dialogue rings true. He realized American audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with a weepy, emotionally overwhelmed 27-year-old, even one with cancer, so he gave Adam the mildly ironic, unruffled demeanor of most movie men his age. It suits Gordon-Levitt, who manages to inject enough fragility to keep us connected to Adam.

The filmmakers do everything they can to balance levity and leavening. The subject says “drama,” and the three supporting women deliver well-shaded, understated performances. (Howard shows us how weakness can be just as destructive as malice.)

Yet all the film’s technical elements say “comedy,” from Michael Giacchino’s unobtrusive music to the quick pacing and 99-minute length. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “Yeah, our main guy has cancer. But let’s not get all deathy or anything. What else is going on with him?”

In the end, maybe that’s a healthy attitude to take. Samuel Johnson also wrote, “As he that lives longest lives but a little while, every man may be certain that he has no time to waste…Since the few moments remaining are to be considered as the last days of Heaven, not one is to be lost.” That’s the moral of “50/50.”

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9/29/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Comedic narrative about a 27-year-old writer of radio programs who’s diagnosed with spinal cancer and struggles to savor his life.

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