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Review: '50/50' balances comedy and pathos

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 9:44 AM EDT, Fri September 30, 2011
He may be boorish, but Kyle (Seth Rogen, pictured right) genuinely wants what's best for Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
He may be boorish, but Kyle (Seth Rogen, pictured right) genuinely wants what's best for Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Seth Rogen shows us someone who is actively trying to grow up
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt hits you hard with Adam's anger and fear
  • "50/50" generally avoids the terminal whimsy that swamps "Restless"

(CNN) -- How do you get someone to buy a ticket for a cancer show? Pretend it's a comedy of course.

Hey, it worked with "The Bucket List!" Anyhow that seems to be the marketing strategy for "50/50," a sympathetic and yes, sometimes, humorous drama about a young man diagnosed with a rare form of the disease that's nowhere near as crass as the trailer would have you believe.

Of course the combination of crass and Seth Rogen is a proven winner, so you can't blame them for trying. He plays the crude, beer-swilling, girlfriend-hating best buddy supporting role, but even this off-the-peg character has more going for him than usual.

He may be boorish, especially around women, but Kyle genuinely wants what's best for Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Learning that his pal's chances of coming through this are 50/50, he immediately takes heart: "If you were a casino game you'd have the best odds."

Seth Rogen isn't making fun of cancer
Seth Rogen and Will Reiser on '50/50'

A more resourceful actor than he used to be, Rogen shows us someone who is actively trying to grow up even if he's not too sure what that might entail. It's a delicate portrait of a clumsy man.

As you would expect, most of the dramatic heavy lifting falls on Gordon-Levitt, and he responds smartly by underplaying, muting his responses, looking for stillness and calm -- or what his trainee therapist (Anna Kendrick) recognizes as numb denial. When that composure does break, Gordon-Levitt hits you hard with Adam's anger and fear.

Admittedly the movie doesn't have the stomach for the gaunt physical enfeeblement you see in most serious cancer cases -- and occasionally in rare, brave films like "One True Thing." Adam shaves his head and admits to some weariness, but that's about as far down that depressing road director Jonathan Levine wants to take us.

Few audiences will complain. It's a movie, not a documentary. Based on an autobiographical screenplay by Will Reiser (a friend of Seth Rogen who apparently went through the same diagnosis), "50/50" generally avoids the terminal whimsy that swamps Gus Van Sant's current arty atrocity, "Restless" in favor of practical real-life concerns like getting to and from the hospital, eating and allowing your loved ones their share of the suffering (Anjelica Huston more or less steals the movie with a knockout turn as a difficult and overbearing but still caring mom).

On this evidence, hanging out for chemo with the guys is almost like poker night -- until one player cashes in his chips for good. But the mordant camaraderie Adam strikes up with his much older fellow patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) rings true, actually.

Anna Kendrick (from "Up in the Air") works hard to make her novice psychologist believable -- a tall order in the circumstances but she carries it off well enough -- while Bryce Dallas Howard bravely follows "The Help" with another chilly narcissist, Adam's girlfriend Rachel.

The plotting isn't exactly unpredictable, but when it comes to juggling comedy and pathos, "50/50" gets the balance just about right. It's no cure for cancer, but when we're dealing with such a painful topic it sure doesn't hurt to laugh -- or cry -- and know you're in good company.

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