50/50 - Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Katie (Anna Kendrick) and Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © 2010 Mandate Pictures

There’s a 50/50 chance you will enjoy this literally half-baked cancer comedy, because all of its good points are subverted by aggravatingly annoying bad ones.

On the positive side, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is likable and believable much of the time as Adam, a public radio producer with a life-threatening spinal tumor. As his younger and awkwardly well-meaning therapist Katherine, Anna Kendrick is even more irresistibly adorable than she was in Up in the Air, where she played a similarly educated-but-inexperienced professional. The initially uncomfortable relationship between Adam and Katherine that develops into genuine caring should have been the movie’s focal point.

50/50 - Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Kyle (Seth Rogen) and Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © 2010 Mandate Pictures

Instead, too much time is wasted on Adam’s unlikely friendship with crude best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), the kind of unshaven sexist slob who thinks Adam should use his illness as an aid to getting laid. The movie’s credibility nosedives whenever Rogen shows up to make the kind of crass comments, rude remarks or embarrassing social blunders that pass for humor in bad sitcoms and Judd Apatow movies. (In a sad commentary on what studio marketing execs think of the public’s taste, 50/50‘s ad campaign concentrates almost exclusively on scenes featuring Adam and Kyle.)

The movie is half tentative indie romance, half misogynistic stoner comedy. It works when Adam tells Katherine in a soul-revealing heart-to-heart before major surgery that he thinks she would be a good girlfriend. It doesn’t work when Adam and Kyle take home a pair of shallow bimbos from a bar, after which Kyle treats his one night stand with self-centered disrespect that’s supposed to be funny.

It works when Katherine gives pitiful Adam a ride home in her trash-filled car, during which she attempts not very successfully to maintain therapist-patient detachment. It doesn’t work when Adam is told that the electric clippers he’s using to shave his head are ones that Kyle employs to trim his nether regions. (Also, considering that Adam has lost no hair at that point to chemotherapy, and that one of his fellow chemo patients has retained a full head of hair throughout treatment, his decision to make himself bald makes sense only as a contrived setup for the clippers gag.)

Anything in Will Reiser’s screenplay with any subtlety is consistently undercut by scenes that feel hammered in for cheap laughs. Anjelica Huston is Adam’s overprotective mother Diane, who needs only a single quietly delivered line to express the hurt of knowing that Adam doesn’t always pick up her telephone calls. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, Kyle loudly and triumphantly presents Adam with evidence that girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is cheating on him in the movie’s most strangely acted scene. Rogen is in clownishly over-the-top mook mode, Howard appears to have dropped in from a grim domestic drama and Gordon-Levitt seems too shell-shocked to know what the heck he’s supposed to do.

Half-“baked”-wise, Adam eats pot cookies during a chemotherapy session, and later fires up a medicinal marijuana bong with Kyle. Those scenes probably are best appreciated by viewers who partook of their own supply before leaving the house.

Reiser used his own real-life bout with cancer as the basis of 50/50, but the screenplay feels so hacked up, shot full of dopiness and badly sewn back together that the abused thing barely survives. Although excising Rogen would have alleviated some of the suffering, his easily amused fan base also makes him the movie’s most commercial attraction. Ironic, no?

[Rating:2.5 stars]

50/50 has it’s theatrical release on September 30, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.