What would you do if a doctor who couldn’t manage to look you in the eye starkly announced that you had a 50/50 chance of surviving a rare form of cancer? Such is the dilemma faced by 27-year-old Seattle NPR radio producer, Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt). He’s too young to be sick, he insists. And he’s too good–he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink alcohol, he recycles, he doesn’t even drive, heck, in a car-less intersection he won’t walk across the street until the light indicates “go.” How could such a good guy possibly have a monster tumor growing in his back?

Adam carries his disbelief like a suit of armor to ward off the demons of cancer reality. He keeps channeling his inner Stoic Man until his rage explodes in an act of justifiable destruction–a moment in the movie in which we in the audience let out a sigh of relief–Adam is normal after all. He’s enraged, we say, he’s sad, he feels sorry for himself — finally he’s acting just like I probably would! It’s that connection with the audience, subtle at first, then growing more intense, that makes 50/50 one of the most enjoyable films of the year. What’s even better, 50/50 is a male buddy movie–with an equal number of solid female roles.

Directed by relatively unknown Jonathan Levine (Wackness), 50/50 has the look of a serviceable low-budget film–well-done but nothing flashy. Which suits the story just fine since it’s not a tale of car crashes or CGI effects. First-time scribe Will Reis based his script on his own experience. The film’s quirkiness, the imperfections of its characters, the vivid cancer details all have the unmistakable ring of truth. The film is like a roller coaster of cancer verisimilitude–dragging along the bottom, soaring to the top, rushing down the abyss, so many new sensations you’re dizzy from trying to hold on–and just when you want to hop off–the ride keeps going and then going again. In essence 50/50 is an action adventure thriller that takes place in the arena of cancer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt starred in one of my favorite, and least appreciated, films of 2007, Lookout, in which he played a brain-damaged man caught up in a crime conspiracy. He gives his role in 50/50 the same tightly reined control, dueling with enemies he doesn’t understand. Both performances are haunting. Lead by Gordon-Levitt, the rest of the cast is equally memorable.

Adam’s hot new redhead girlfriend, artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard (the scene stealer in The Help ), tearfully promises to be there for him. Especially since Adam is going to need a lot of driving to and from the hospital for his chemotherapy treatments. Alas, Rachael’s intentions are more passionate than her follow-through and soon she’s bored by the drama of taking care of Adam.

More loyal is the help offered by his buddy from childhood, Kyle, played with endearing affection by that usually obnoxious actor, Seth Rogan (Knocked Up). Kyle, who’s always been jealous of Adam’s ability to get girls, now turns his friend’s cancer into a chick-magnet. He sets up horrible, but hilarious scenarios where sympathetic willing girls want to give Adam a mercy rendezvous and Kyle gets the sidekick’s benefits. Underneath Kyle’s annoying behavior is a rock-solid love that gives Adam the uncritical support he needs.

Meanwhile Adam is dealing with the rest of his life. First, he has to tell his mother, Diane (Angelica Huston). As an only child, Adam has been the focus of his mother’s powerful love, something he’s always resisted. He rebuffs all her attempts to help him. Adam’s father, rendered simple-minded by Alzheimer’s disease, can’t realize who Adam is, much less that something is wrong with him. In one of the most poignant moments in the film, Adam’s psychologist points out to him how cruel his rejection of his mother is. Diane, like many older women, has a husband who can’t talk to her–and a son who won’t. .

Adam expands his circle of friends with his two new pals in chemotherapy. Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer) try to cheer Adam up with marijuana brownies and gruesome jokes about all the thrilling things he can expect from the effects of the radiation.

The most touching encounter Adam endures is with his assigned counselor, a rookie therapist named Katherine, played by Anna Kendrick. Kendrick, a remarkable young actress, gives the difficult role the same rigid delicacy she exhibited in her Oscar nominated performance in 2009’s Up in the Air. She’s the quintessential caregiver, who can’t help being both compassionate and irritating.

I was completely blown away by this film, possibly because its charms were so unexpected. It’s worth seeing on the big screen where you can feel the full impact of the performances. If you miss 50/50 in the theatres, be sure to catch it when it comes out on DVD.

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