I was expecting this “dramedy,” about a 27 year-old radio writer, Adam (JG-L), who is diagnosed with a rare cancer of the spine, to be both funny and emotional. Surprisingly, it ended up being mostly neither for me.
Adam is a quiet, serious sort of fellow, who, as the film opens, has just moved in with his incredibly lame girlfriend Rachel, and is about to go see a doctor about some back pain he’s had for a while. The doctor’s visit goes badly — after a quick look at his MRI, the doc tells him he’s got a rare tumor in his back and that his odds of survival are 50/50 (hence: title). Almost instantly, Adam’s life falls apart: his girlfriend dumps him after realizing she’s not cut out for standing by her man, his overbearing mother (the always-great Anjelica Houston) threatens to move in so she can smother him with mothering, and his best friend Kyle — well, his best friend Kyle mostly thinks this is the greatest news ever, as it means Adam can now play the “C-card,” and use his cancer to score chicks.
In theory, the movie then moves into a thoughtful combination of sadness and pain lightened up by goofy “bromance” comedy, as Kyle steps up to help his pal and the two begin bonding even more tightly via shared fear of loss. The only problem is that it doesn’t really get either dynamic quite right. The story goes too simply and predictably — Adam’s diagnosed, he goes through the usual five stages of grief, he shaves his head proactively in the obligatory cancer-movie head-shaving scene, and eventually, he accepts his disease and begins to fight it back.
Yet, for all the weight a story like this should have, it never really gets there. It’s impossible not to feel anything for Adam — Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the master of looking pained, exhausted, and sympathetic — yet his character seemed underconceived to me. Aside from one spectacular flash of anger, Adam is pretty much just. . . mopey. His demeanor stays very even-keeled, which doesn’t make much sense given his diagnosis. He never engages in any authentic emotional swoopage, and I don’t know a single person who’s had cancer who hasn’t had some spectacular emotional swoops from time to time. There’s a lot of power in emotional swings like that — and therefore, a lot of chances to really engage the audience in some shared gut-wrenching agony. But to be honest, I felt like JG-L mostly just phoned this one in.
As for the “funny” parts, there are a few genuine laughs in there — maybe more if you’re a big fan of Seth Rogan’s schtick (meh) — but, if anything, the constant jarring yank from tender moment to goofy gag just made it impossible for either element to take hold. It sort of reminded me of how a friend of mine reacts whenever I start crying about something — she immediately makes a joke to try to make me laugh, which I usually do, and then changes the subject to quash my emotional reaction before it gets too uncomfortable for either of us. Which is great for me, because I hate crying and I don’t want to cry in front of anyone and thank god someone changed the subject before I made a fool out of myself, but it’s not terribly useful in terms of emotional connection and growth.
Overall, this is a very watchable film — I watched it, I didn’t hate it — but nothing special. Which is kind of surprising, since the guy who wrote it, Will Reiser, based it on his own experience with cancer and his relationship with his best friend, coincidentally also played by Seth Rogan. Was Reiser too afraid to go all-out with the heavy parts, for fear of making it too much of a downer? And then too afraid to go all-out with the comedy, for fear of insulting those who have suffered greatly from cancer? Whatever the cause, this movie just doesn’t seem fully developed somehow.
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston