Silver Screen: Fifty/Fifty ****
It may help to know going in that Fifty/Fifty, a dramedy in which a twenty-seven-year-old man is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, is an autobiographical story based on the life of screenwriter Will Reiser. That Reiser stuck around and was able to write and produce the script should ease your trepidation about a bum-out of an ending. That fact may serve to soften the drama a bit, too, but Fifty/Fifty remains a surprisingly affecting film that's less about the struggle to overcome illness and more about the different kinds of relationships that sustain us.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a clean-living public-radio employee who's so cautious he won't even get a driver license for fear of getting in an accident, so he's especially stunned to learn he has a rare form of spinal cancer. The doctors give him the titular one-in-two chance to survive, and the news understandably grinds his life to a halt: He takes time off work and begins chemotherapy.
Despite one or two scenes of Adam getting sick and a montage of him undergoing tests, Fifty/Fifty isn't terribly concerned with the mechanics of battling cancer or the medical details, but rather the ways in which it challenges Adam's perception of himself and how he relates to the people in his life.
Adam's strongest supporter is his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a high-school pal who somewhat implausibly also works at his radio station. Kyle is an unambitious, carpe diem type, assuming he doesn't have to expend to much energy to do his carpe-ing. He jumps into action when he learns of the diagnosis, unlike Adam's girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a self-centered artist who makes all the noises of being supportive without actually doing anything helpful. Adam's mother (Anjelica Huston) has the opposite problem, smothering him with worry even as she cares for his Alzheimer's-addled father. Helping him navigate the process is therapist-in-training Katherine (Anna Kendrick), an inexperienced but kindhearted grief counselor.
Some of the interactions are more illuminating than others. Rachael is written as such an implausibly awful, selfish person that she provides little more than an excuse for Adam to stand up for himself, and in this way she seems more like a plot point than a character. Kendrick's therapist could easily serve as an excuse for a lot of explicating and speechifying, yet she turns out to be one of the movie's better-realized supporting players, even if she's part of the movie's most unlikely subplot.
The second-billed Rogen is truly Gordon-Levitt's partner in the film, the Hepburn to his Tracy. Fifty/Fifty is in this way a kind of bro-tastic Beaches, a stirring tale about dudes helping dudes that uses lots of dick jokes to ease the tension and mask the sensitivity. How funny you find Seth Rogen will largely determine how well you think Fifty/Fifty succeeds as a comedy. Heavy exposure has generated something of a Rogen backlash, aided considerably by the similarity of most of his characters, and he's certainly working in his wheelhouse here as a wisecracking stoner. But if it's a wisecracker stoner friend you need, nobody does it better than Rogen, and he pairs nicely with Gordon-Levitt, who might well be the best actor of his generation (sorry, Ryan Gosling).
Some of the movie's best scenes involve a pair of older cancer patients, a pair of dark-humored friends played by Matt Fewer and the inimitable Philip Baker Hall. They share their pot cookies with Adam and give him advice while they're receiving their IV drips, and these moments are Fifty/Fifty's most real, suggesting an approach that could have made for a different and perhaps better movie.
Certainly Fifty/Fifty has its maudlin moments and cutesy plot twists. It may even err too often on the side of levity at times, putting a mild gloss on Adam's condition, but it's wiser than its jaunty, profanity-laced banter might suggest.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.