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Beating the Odds

You may think you’ve seen enough cancer melodramas — “Restless” or “Terms of Endearment.” But “50/50” rises above those hackneyed and conventional tear jerkers to deliver an honest, compassionate, unsentimental look at a young man facing his own mortality too soon. It’s also very funny. Written by Will Reiser from his own experience with cancer — he was diagnosed at 24 and has been in remission for six years — the movie follows Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt,) an NPR producer in Seattle from diagnosis (“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I recycle,” he tells the unsympathetic diagnostician who rates his chances of survival at, yes, 50/50) through debilitating chemotherapy to dangerous surgery. Along this lonely road, Adam learns that even such a terrifying experience can bring unexpected and improbable gifts. The movie is as much about the effects of Adam’s cancer on his family and friends as on him. Quickly he wonders who he can count on. Will it be his self-involved, possessive mother, played with ferocious intensity by Anjelica Huston? Or his equally self-involved artist girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard? (Her role as the witchy ex-debutante obsessed with separate toilets for black maids in “The Help” might give you a hint of how helpful she is to Adam.) Then there is his best friend, Kyle (an absolutely right Seth Rogen), who battles his own panic with jokes about Voldemort when Adam shaves his head before beginning treatment, uses his friend’s cancer as a babe magnet to pick up women and floods the picture with streams of irreverent jokes and observations. Rogen, whom I have never entirely appreciated, is flat out terrific. Among a serious illness’s surprise silver linings, the film suggests, are new friends and supporters. Here Adam meets three older men at his chemotherapy sessions who teach him courage, endurance and patience. And his therapist, played by Anna Kendrick with the same stiff-necked intensity that she brought to “Up in the Air,” stumbles and fumbles until she breaks through his reserve and connects with him emotionally. If all this sounds clichéd, it isn’t. There is a freshness that says “this is how it really is.” But it is that universal question of who, if anyone, will show up for us in the end that is central to “50/50.” Director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) and Gordon-Levitt (whose fresh-faced gentleness and honesty make us come to care so much for him ourselves) answer the question simply with a book and a bathroom, in a moment that captures everything that makes this film so surprising and so moving: honest writing; unobtrusive direction; appealing, un-flashy performances. In a fragile mix of comedy, drama and life-and-death questions, “50/50” beats the odds and wins. “50/50” is playing in Great Barrington and Torrington. It is rated R for strong language.

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