Catcher in the MRI: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Fights Cancer in 50/50

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Sept. 30 2011 2:04 PM

Catcher in the MRI

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young man with spinal cancer in 50/50.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50

Photo byChris Helcermanas-Benge– ©2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Jonathan Levine’s last movie was The Wackness (2008), an uneven but charming coming-of-age comedy about a rap-obsessed, pot-dealing teenager contending with crazy parents and a crazier shrink in the summer of 1994. Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the hero of Levine’s new film, is dealing with a situation that’s even more wack: At age 27, he’s been diagnosed with an unpronounceable form of spinal cancer that gives him only a 50 percent chance of survival.

Adam is a guarded, opaque sort, inclined to play down his illness with mild irony. He blows off the constant phone calls from his understandably freaked-out mother (Anjelica Huston in a small but outstanding role), who’s also struggling with a husband in the late stages of dementia. Adam’s girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), on the other hand, seems curiously disconnected from the reality that the man she loves may be dying—she declines to accompany him past the hospital doors, citing “bad energy” in a way that tips us off she’s bad news.

But at least Adam has Kyle (Seth Rogen), who gives him a ride every day to the Seattle public radio station where they both work. (Adam himself doesn’t drive, which becomes an important plot detail without ever being adequately explored as a character trait. Why doesn’t he have a license? Is he fearful, scatterbrained, ecologically minded, or just broke?) Kyle is a horny stoner doofus—an only slightly more nuanced variation on the classic Rogen role—but he’s as loyal as a St. Bernard, and when he learns his friend is sick, he’s all in, offering to drive Adam to chemotherapy appointments and get him laid in between (using Adam’s true-life sob story as a surefire chick magnet).

Adam’s hospital visits introduce him to a few sympathetic souls: There’s Alan (Philip Baker Hall), a cancer patient in his 70s who generously shares his medical-marijuana-laced macaroons; and Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a nervous young psychology student who offers Adam therapy sessions as part of her thesis project. Adam and Katherine’s stop-and-start flirtation makes for some of the movie’s most darkly funny scenes, as her textbook bromides (“I just want you to know what you’re feeling is perfectly normal”) shrivel in the heat of his repressed rage. But Katherine’s not the only one who fails to get to the bottom of what Adam’s feeling: For the majority of the movie this quiet, sardonic young man remains impenetrable to the audience, too. Gordon-Levitt, a generous and versatile actor, rarely gets the chance to play anything beyond stoic repression—until a late powerful scene in which, awaiting a major medical procedure, he clings to his mother with undisguised infantile need.

Levine and the scriptwriter, Will Reiser (who based the story in part on his own experience as a cancer patient), labor mightily to find both the drama and the comedy in Adam’s awful plight, with a success rate that’s slightly greater than the ratio of the film’s title. Scene by scene, 50/50 can be both amusing and moving, with the tightly wound Gordon-Levitt and the boundaryless Rogen forming an oddly complementary pair. But as a whole the movie never quite coheres, seeming to skitter away at the last minute from both full-body laughter and full-body sobs. “Did you see Terms of Endearment?” Adam asks his mother moments before he tells her he has cancer. The line gets a laugh because, presumably, of the distance between that movie’s Hollywood vision of a family brought closer by cancer and this movie’s rawer, realer version. But the sprawling, occasionally operatic Terms of Endearment felt more honest than this cautious and tidy film.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.