The best scene in cancer comedy 50/50 is wordless: Newly diagnosed with a malignant nerve sheath sarcoma, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wanders the halls of a Seattle oncology ward stoned out of his gourd. The soundtrack pipes in the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” and as Barry Gibb warbles that you don’t know what it’s like, Gordon-Levitt grins obliviously at grieving families and body bags. His recognition of death is dulled by weed, but the movie has the opposite problem: It’s essentially a generic stoner comedy, dampened by the glum presence of mortality.
So far as I know, there’s been one genuinely funny movie about cancer, and it is Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Wit—a play where the humor, as withering as a chemo round, annihilates all defenses, leaving only emotions pure enough to repeatedly reduce this viewer to racking sobs. Wit is art confronting death. 50/50 is entertainment about sickness. Despite its title referring to the hero’s odds of survival, the movie feels hesitant to explore the implications that one character might soon vanish from the company of all others. It’s skittish, even—as uncomfortable as Bryce Dallas Howard as Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend, who would rather wait in the parking lot for four hours than venture into a hospital. 50/50 goes in the building, obviously, but it never really faces what happens there. It has jokes about scamming to get your dick sucked and jokes about hitting the bong—the same jokes as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, basically, but delivered in a hush, like throwing a 4/20 party next to a funeral home.
Gordon-Levitt is an electric actor (he singlehandedly elevated Hesher out of mediocrity into something gloriously bizarre), so it is strange to see him subdued into a kind of inertia: a blankness that has something to do with denial, but more to do with the lack of a script. The entire project—scripted by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine—feels compulsory and not fully thought through. 50/50 is packed with performers willing to spend visiting hours with difficult emotions, but they are all, especially the women, assigned one-dimensional roles: the mom (Anjelica Huston), the cheating-bitch girlfriend (Howard), the shrink who would be a much better girlfriend (Anna Kendrick). Seth Rogen plays the best buddy—a false comforter, though I’m not sure the movie recognizes exactly how false—and the great Philip Baker Hall is a fellow chemo patient, who supplies pot cookies and...well, very little else, because anything further would require writing, and that is a labor that this movie concertedly avoids. It’s true that words are ultimately inadequate against the grave, but that’s no reason not to explore their full capacity to define the emptiness.
Instead, the night
before a decisive surgery, Rogen gets drunk and sits on a harbor bench
with Gordon-Levitt, who is shot out of focus for much of the scene. It’s
an odd choice, but befitting a movie that never chooses to see clearly.
57 SEE IT: 50/50 opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, City Center, Evergreen, Lloyd Center, Tigard, Wilsonville and Sandy.