Review: “50/50”

Director Jonathan Levine’s “50/50” is one of those rare movies that pulls off a feat of narrative tightrope walking, in this case a comedy-drama about a young man with cancer that manages to be thought-provoking and insightful without being melodramatic, and funny and irreverant rather than woefully inappropriate or boringly safe.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his career ascendancy that arguably started several years ago with “Mysterious Skin” and “Brick”; here he plays Adam, a 27-year-old public radio producer who learns quite suddenly that he is suffering from a rare form of spinal cancer. (The movie’s title refers to his chances of survival.)

Even though he is surrounded by supporters, Adam’s feeling of isolation is palpable and, in a way, the movie is as much about their reaction to his diagnosis as it is about him. His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is supportive, but also exploits Adam’s illness to pick up girls and as an easy excuse for getting stoned (in all fairness, he does share his weed and women with his bro).

Adam’s flaky artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) folds fairly quickly, while his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) is a 24-year-old med school graduate who’s still operating from a textbook. His father (Serge Houde) has Alzheimer’s Syndrome and his mother (Angelica Huston) is the smothering over-protective type who can be as infuriating as she is supportive. Fellow chemotherapy patients Alan and Mitch (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, respectively) are the only people to whom he can relate.

Screenwriter Will Reiser based the script on his own personal experience with the disease, and he infuses the story with the kind of insight only a survivor can provide. Fortuantely, he spares us the faux sentimentality or weepy melodrama, and gives the viewer something more than “Terms of Endearment” for the hipster crowd. He successfully navigates some unforgiving terrain, as only a person who’s been there could.

Gordon-Levitt is savvy enough to modulate his performance as needed, hanging onto Adam’s mild-mannered nature as he struggles to keep his wits in the face of the worst form of uncertainty. It’s a performance that cements his status as a leading man in need of a break-out role.