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AP Photo/Summit Entertainment, Chris Helcemanas-Benge
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Seth Rogen are shown in a scene from "50/50".

‘50/50’: A film that beats the odds

Posted: October 6, 2011 - 8:36am  |  Updated: October 6, 2011 - 8:47am

"50/50"
Mandate Pictures
1 hour, 39 minutes

I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to this movie. A cancer comedy? I guess that could work, but the whole idea seemed a little tiring. Not because I'm tired of cancer, although we could certainly do without it, but because I'm tired of Seth Rogen. The guy plays himself in every single role, no matter whether he's a slacker burnout or a superhero -- it's always Seth Rogen. To date, the most range I've seen him show is as B.O.B. in "Monsters vs. Aliens." He's still pretty much Seth Rogen, but he's added that amorphous blob with no brain layer to the performance. Very subtle.

It's not that I don't like Rogen, either. I find him affable and funny, but I've just been getting Rogen overload lately. That is, until I found out the single most fascinating thing about his latest film, "50/50": It's based on a true story about a guy who finds out he has cancer at the age of 27, is given a 50 percent chance of survival, and braves the ordeal with the help of a supportive best friend. The guy in question is Will Reiser, played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, and the friend is -- you guessed it -- Seth Rogen, played here by Seth Rogen, as Kyle.

Confused? I was too, for a second. Reiser is a real guy who really had cancer, and is really one of Seth Rogen's best friends. Rogen really helped Reiser battle cancer. For all of his lack of creativity as an actor, it's hard to fault Seth Rogen for just playing himself, when he's actually playing himself.

Adam is a producer for NPR, and just isn't really doing all that well. His relationship with his girlfriend is tenuous, his best friend is kind of a lout, and, to top it all off, this nagging pain in his back just won't go away. When he goes to the doctor, things go from bad to worse.

Turns out he's got a tumor, a rare one, and cancerous, to boot. That the news comes from an impassive internist with about as much empathy as a turnip doesn't do much to soften the blow.

The plot of the film is pretty straightforward; the rest of the story is about how Adam comes to grips with his diagnosis, and how he gets through the ordeal amidst the swirling characters that inundate his life. There's Kyle, his buddy, whose goal is to cheer him up at all costs; Rachael, the girlfriend who is having a lot of trouble with the negative energy this cancer seems to be emanating; and Diane, Adam's mother, whose smothering affection and worry are driving him up the wall.

And then there's Katherine, his therapist, who is in training and doesn't really know what to do with a patient who refuses to open up. The story is moving, very well made, and, surprisingly, very funny.

The biggest key to a movie like this is the writing, and it is mostly top-notch here. I do have to take a small issue with some of the raunchier dialogue, what gives this movie it's R rating. It's not that I was offended, it just feels a little lazy, somehow. Also, it often takes me out of the story, as it feels a little forced. I just don't think most guys really talk that way on a regular basis. Maybe I'm wrong. Luckily, this movie isn't "Superbad" or "Step Brothers," so that element of the film was pretty small.

The element of the movie that can't be faulted, however, is the acting. Obviously, Seth Rogen is pretty good at playing Seth Rogen, but the two performers that really shine are Gordon-Levitt and Bryce Dallas Howard, as Rachael.

Gordon-Levitt, who most people know from either "3rd Rock from the Sun," or, more recently, "Inception," gives a moving, complex performance as a guy who just can't believe this has happened to him. He's angry, he's in shock, but mostly he's just beat down by the news. It also, however, offers him perspective, and that's really the theme of the movie.

Howard, much as she did in "The Help," plays a character that's a little hard to like, but makes this role much less a caricature and adds a small amount of sympathy. This actress has impressed me more and more with each successive film, making me almost forget the terrible trainwreck that was M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water."

Anjelica Huston, as Diane, does a fine job, but nothing that really asks her to stretch much. There are two veteran character actors who shine in a couple of very small but dense roles as Adam's chemotherapy friends. Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer are both excellent here.

Despite my earlier irritation, there's no denying that the strongest aspect of the film is the great chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen.

The interaction between the two of them makes difficult scenes and subject matter bearable, and I wonder how many of the elements are taken directly from real life. There is a moment when Adam is at the end of his rope with Kyle and at a particularly low ebb emotionally. After taking his friend, who has gotten drunk and passed out, home to bed, you can just feel his frustration boiling over. That is, until he sees a dog-eared, heavily underlined book about coping with a cancer patient lying on the bathroom counter. It's a sweet moment of realization for Adam, and I remember thinking, "Wow. Seth Rogen is really trying his hardest."

This was followed by, "Wait. No. Not Seth Rogen -- Kyle. Rogen's just playing a role." But now I wonder ...

Grade: A-

"50/50" is rated R for language and sexual situations.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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