"Cancer comedy" is the kind of high concept that's hard to pull off, but that's just what director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser do with 50/50. On one level, 50/50 looks like a typical "bromance" comedy, pairing old buddies turned odd-couple co-workers Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Seth Rogen), who both work at the Seattle branch of National Public Radio, where sensitive Adam pursues complicated environmental stories while slovenly Kyle does audio listicles about the city's best burgers.
But this is a buddy comedy in the style of Rogen mentor Judd Apatow, where broad laughs are connected to recognizably human characters and actual emotions. This makes it possible for 50/50 to nail a difficult tonal balance when Adam is diagnosed with a serious form of spinal cancer, the film's title denoting Adam's chances for survival. Kyle points out that those would be amazing odds on a casino game.
Gallows humor like this works in 50/50 because the film also takes the physical and emotional trajectory of Adam's illness and treatment seriously enough that rueful humor is just one of many reasonable responses to the situation.
Gordon-Levitt finds every beat in a demanding role and Rogen's familiar blend of comic timing and latent humanity fits a sidekick who hides his concern beneath guy-talk bluster. The film is generous and understanding toward these characters and others dealing imperfectly with a difficult situation, including Adam's worried, smothering, well-meaning mother, Diane (Angelica Huston), and his inexperienced, inconsistent, well-meaning grief counselor, Katherine (Up in the Air's Anna Kendrick), who morphs into a love interest with fewer character and plot acrobatics than you expect.
The one time 50/50 falters is with Adam's girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, giving better than she gets), who has only recently moved in with him when the news hits. She decides to stay with Adam and help, but quickly finds herself not up to it. That she falters is in line with the imperfect responses of other characters, but 50/50 doesn't extend her the same generosity. In turning this character into an easy villain, 50/50 betrays its own best impulses.
Opens Friday, September 30th