A 50-50 Chance

in 29th Torino Film Festival

by Emanuel Levy

One of the most likeable and most commercial films in the main competition of the 29th Torino Film Festival was the American indie 50/50 by Jonathan Levine. 50/50 may just be one of the most upbeat ‘cancer’ movies ever made, situated in a growing field of both big screen and small screen features.

The movie, which world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released in the U.S. by Summit to positive critical response, does not conform to the conventions of a genre that could be called ‘TV Illness of the Week Movie’.

Levine, whose feature debut was the offbeat Sundance comedy The Wackness (2008), starring Ben Kingsley, tries very hard — perhaps too hard — to achieve the above honor. But, judging by the end result, Levine delivers a heartfelt, if not always a completely convincing or satisfying, film.

This cancer story also belongs to the growing subgenre of bromance, offering Joseph Gordon-Levitt one of his richest roles to date; he is often cast in secondary parts, as in Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, US, 2010).

Gordon-Levitt plays Adam (I wish he answered to another name), a guy who gets sick with a rare form of cancer, while Seth Rogen (best known for his Judd Apatow comedies) is his loud, outspoken friend Kyle, who will not leave his side.

But 50/50 is also a bit of a romantic comedy: Adam and cancer therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick) fall hard for each other, even though this is obviously “very unprofessional” on her part. (This is the season for professionals to violate their code of ethics: In A Dangerous Method, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) has a steamy, ferocious affair with his unstable patient, played by Keira Knightley.

Too bad that Adam’s cancer sometimes seems mostly a plot device to make the bromance/romcom more substantial. The filmmakers use the illness as a pretext to throw Adam into an existential crisis, one that calls for the reevaluation of his identity, his lifestyle, and all of his relationships.

Will Reiser’s screenplay, which has just won Best Original Screenplay from the National Board of Review, is uneven, formulaic in moments, but also clever. The tale works in a number of emotional, authentic moments, with many witty one-liners, bound to connect with the twenty-something viewers, the film’s primary target audience. For example, when Kyle learns that Adam has cancer, his reaction is pitch-perfect: “I’m going to throw up!”

The screenwriter includes many pop culture references in the dialogue, which seem natural for his young, hip, well-educated characters.

When Adam lets his worrywart mom, played with panache by the great Angelica Huston, know that he is sick; he begins with “Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?” And when Kyle helps Adam shave off all his hair, he warns his friend, “You’re going to look like fucking Michael Stipe or something!”

The main question is whether Levine and Reiser can come up with a compelling tale with this cancer dramedy/bromance/romcom? Opinion may vary.

While 50/50 is emotionally engaging, the film is hampered by serious flights of fancy and uneven tone. (This is often the problem of serio-comedies).

The film takes place in a dream-like Seattle in a dream-like America, where working for public radio (both Adam and Kyle do so) is almost as cool as working for Facebook in The Social Network (2010).

Healthcare, meanwhile, has advanced to the point that cancer patients get perky and determined; 24-year-old therapist Katie has her own snazzy office in which they can relax and express all their fears. There is not the slightest suggestion in this film of our country’s current economic and healthcare woes, which may puzzle many viewers who have real-life experience in this realm.

This is especially evident in the first act, in which Gordon-Levitt is diagnosed, and Levine overextends himself in trying to convince that things are not going to get heavy.

A cutesy and grating score by Michael Giacchino screams “This is not going to be ‘Dying Young’!” Levine lurches between the light and the serious, without the necessary confidence to pull off such swings. He seems to be most concerned in assuring viewers that in the end, “Everything will be fine.” In other words, fear not, nobody necessarily has to die in the picture.

A small but telling early scene exemplifies one of the film’s main problems: As soon as Adam announces that he has cancer, his co-workers organize a party celebrating his life – something like a wake before his possible end. This is intended to be funny. Drunken associates embarrass themselves with insensitive comments and questions to Adam. But it comes off as unbelievable and just plain odd. Isn’t this the kind of thing that only happens on a sitcom? Kyle’s incessant efforts to get Adam laid and/or stoned are in the same vein.

The actors try to smooth out these rough spots. Gordon-Levitt has already proven he can command, in films like 500 Days of Summer (2009), but here, as in Inception, he is looking ever more the star. While his performance sometimes feels uncertain, Gordon-Levitt gets better as he goes along, displaying a lot of heart in his big scenes, especially toward the end.

Kendrick, whose best role thus far has been in Up in the Air (2009), for which she was nominated for the Supporting Oscar role, does not show much range here, but she burns a hole in the screen whenever she appears. A capable comedienne, she gets some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Anjelica Huston, who has not had a major role since Choke (2008), steals every scene she gets, as she did in Wes Anderson’s best film The Royal Tennenbaums (2001). If only she had a bigger part to play here. She walks off with one of the film’s finest lines, telling Katie of her son, “I smothered him because I love him.” By contrast, the young actors, who also include Bryce Dallas Howard in a weak role as Adam’s unfaithful girlfriend prior to Katie, seem to feed off of Huston’s energy and chops.