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“Spinal Trap”

REVIEW: “50/50”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

CANCER AND COMEDY aren’t as incompatible as one might think.  For centuries doctors worked from the assumption that the human body was comprised of four humors: phlegm, yellow and black bile, and blood. What’s called the humoural model (from fluid, or humon, in Greek and humor in Latin) dominated from the fifth century BC, with the work of Hippocrates, to the early twentieth century, the vestiges of which are now understood in terms of moods and temperament.  “English-speakers still have to humor the whims of a temperamental colleague,” writes Noga Arikha, author of Passions and Tempers: A History of The Humours, or “face a Monday with ill-humor, and remain good-humored throughout the week.”

But what about facing a stage-four spinal tumor with a sense of humor?  That’s the challenge facing Adam and indeed the larger dramedy based on his existential ordeal called “50/50.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt [“(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception”] plays Adam, a radio producer in Seattle, in a script by Will Reiser who himself battled and beat spinal cancer.  Adam gets by, and high, with a little help from his friends, chiefly Kyle (a sly and slimmer Seth Rogan), his hospital-appointed therapist (Anna Kendrick of “Up in the Air”) and smothery mother (an underused Angelica Huston).  When Adam informs her of his diagnosis over dinner, Huston shoots back: “I’m moving in.”

The film’s first frames feature Adam following all the rules: at 27, he exercises and patiently jogs in place at crosswalks while waiting for the light to change.  He’s smitten with girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) who, as an abstract artist, fills his apartment with ugly canvases and worse, arrives an hour late at the hospital to pick him up.  Reprising her turn as Cruella de Vil in “The Help,” Howard tries her darndest to breathe life into a flat character in a film really about the bonds between men.

The emotional core of “50/50,” after all, lies in that fine bromance between Adam and Kyle.  Friends don’t let friends drive themselves to chemo.  And friends certainly don’t let friends shave their own heads, nor miss the opportunity to corral girls into sympathy sex.  “50/50!” exclaims Kyle, “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.  And lots of people beat cancer.  That guy from ‘Dexter’ and Patrick Swayze.”  “Swayze?” Adam retorts, “That guy is dead.”  “Really?” Kyle backtracks, “Well, don’t think about him.”

Rogan’s casualness as a comic actor makes him instantly likable, and citing “night-blindness” as a reason to share Adam’s cancer-pot, he also reprises a role already seen on screen: 2009’s “Funny People” in which there, too, he nurses a terminal Adam Sandler back to life and laughter.   Directed by Jonathan Levine, “50/50” has none of that inferior film’s acerbic nihilism.  Instead, and in large part because of Levitt’s tenderness – listen for his larynx-shattering howl on the eve of a crucial surgery – “50/50” keeps its head high in the face of despair.  There’s a term for that tactic, by the way; it’s called “gallows humor.”

Cancer Sucks so Blog for a Cure:


My “Bromance” review (“Funny People,” “The Hangover,” and “I Love You, Man”) from the _GLR_: