March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Beautifully balanced '50/50' reveals the lighter side of a life-threatening crisis


In “50/50,” Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has to break some very bad news to his mother (Anjelica Huston) midway through dinner. There’s no easy way to start the discussion, but Adam has a strategy.

“Have you ever seen ‘Terms of Endearment’?” he asks.

Yes, the 27-year-old Adam has cancer, a malignant, rapidly growing tumor on his spine that, his physician has told him — with barely suppressed excitement — is the result of “an incredibly rare gene mutation.” Although Adam has about a 50/50 chance of survival, his doctor has a near-100
percent chance of getting a terrific paper out of the case.

It’s a challenge finding the lighter side of a potentially terminal condition, but screenwriter Will Reiser has succeeded, much in the same way James L. Brooks did when he mixed humorous asides in between the heartaches in “Terms of Endearment.” “50/50” dares audiences to laugh while
still maintaining a strong emotional connection with Adam, an endearing young man who works as a producer at a Seattle public radio station, has an artsy girlfriend named Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a plainspoken best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who tries to lift Adam’s spirits by listing various celebrities who have beaten cancer, including Lance Armstrong (“He keeps getting it”) and “that guy from ‘Dexter,’ Patrick Swayze … ”

Reiser knows his stuff: His story is partly autobiographical, which is why it’s a pitch-perfect record of many of the peculiar situations that someone faces while struggling with the disease. People inadvertently say ridiculous things — after hearing the diagnosis, Adam’s high-strung mom rushes to the kitchen to brew green tea because “I heard on the ‘Today Show’ it reduces your risk of cancer by 15 percent!” — or absent-mindedly begin talking about you in the past tense. “I’m really gonna miss you,” Adam’s boss tells him.

(Full disclosure: I was diagnosed with testicular cancer nine years ago and dealt with many of the same kinds of problems and challenges; see my book, “The Sum of My Parts,” for all the bizarre details.)

In addition to Reiser’s on-the-mark writing, the movie gets an enormous boost from the superb performances of Gordon-Levitt, Huston and Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”), who is flat-out sensational as an earnest, touchy-feely therapist who learns it takes more than tender pats on the arm and twinkly New Age music to get through to an anxious Adam. Rogen, a longtime friend of Reiser, is surprisingly powerful, showing an unexpected vulnerability beneath his typically jolly, often crude facade.

In small but sterling roles as Adam’s fellow chemotherapy patients Alan and Mitch, Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer add an extra layer of sardonic wit and poignancy. “The more syllables, the worse it is,” Mitch cracks when Adam stumbles over the name of his disease.

Director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) balances the comedy and pathos remarkably well, allotting enough space for the funny moments without ignoring the rage, confusion and the occasionally ugly emotions that circle around Adam. It’s a terrific movie that turns a grim subject into a remarkably good time.