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'50/50' overcomes the odds for many critics

September 30, 2011 |  2:33 pm

Bryce Dallas Howard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a scene from '50/50'
Cancer is no laughing matter — except, apparently, in the new comedy "50/50," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young man diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer (the title refers to his chances of survival) and Seth Rogen as his wisecracking, big-hearted best friend. The film, which was inspired by screenwriter Will Reiser's personal experiences, is finding favor with most critics.

The Times' Kenneth Turan writes that "'50/50' walks a very tricky line. As a comedy about a young man with cancer, it needs to be serious enough to be real as well as light enough to be funny. Though it falls off the wagon at times, it maintains its balance remarkably well." Turan credits Jonathan Levine's artful direction and an expertly assembled cast (with a nod to Francine Maisler, who also cast "Moneyball"), and says that "the key element in '50/50' is the screenplay by Will Reiser, a young writer who, as has been widely reported, was inspired by his own experience as a twentysomething diagnosed with a rare type of cancer."

USA Today's Claudia Puig, who says "50/50" is "easily one of the funniest films about serious illness," also praises the cast. "Every performance in the film is flawless," Puig writes, "but three stand out: Gordon-Levitt is terrific in the lead role, a more emotionally raw version of his lovesick greeting-card writer in 2009's '(500) Days of Summer.' We root for his wry Adam because of Gordon-Levitt's every-guy quality. Rogen's delivery is flawless — his banter with Gordon-Levitt is so natural, it feels improvised. And [Anna] Kendrick brings a sweetly endearing quality to her nervous therapist role."

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times is more measured in her assessment, writing that Gordon-Levitt's character feels underdeveloped: "The likable Mr. Gordon-Levitt has a thousand ways to look unhappy, dejected, depressed, freaked out, wrung out and sick to his stomach, but there's something so recessive about Adam, or rather underconceived, that the character never grabs you as hard as you expect and really need." Dargis does, however, have kudos for supporting players Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall and, "best of all, Kendrick (familiar as George Clooney's foil in 'Up in the Air'), an actress whose superb comic timing lifts the movie, and you."

San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle says that, despite the potentially off-putting subject matter, "'50/50' will be liked and appreciated even by people who can't imagine wanting to see it." Though the film follows some familiar patterns, LaSalle says, Levine and Reiser "know what they have to show but figure out how to do so in imaginative and engaging ways."

Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, sees TV in "50/50's" DNA. "The screenplay perhaps benefits from Reiser's experience on TV and proceeds in an orderly way through a basic sitcom structure," Ebert writes, while pointing out that "there's an undercurrent of truth and real feeling." He also compliments the film's final act: "Sitcoms and film comedies in general have a way of going haywire with comic desperation toward the end. This one doesn't."

In the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern sums up his take on "50/50" with an adjustment of the film's title. He writes, "my feelings about the film … hover around 60/40. I wish it well, and wish it were better."

Somehow, "60/40" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.


Photos: '50/50' premiere

Seth Rogen presents the lighter side of cancer

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hip to the creative process

-- Oliver Gettell

Photo: Bryce Dallas Howard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50." Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge / Summit Entertainment.

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