Apparently the head-shaving scene was completely improvised.

You kind of knew that even with the subject matter, 50/50 was going to work. Maybe it was the cast, I know for me it definitely factors in heavily as I’m an avowed fan of both Rogen and Gordon-Levitt. I guess it’s also that the trailer so well sold the combination of drama and comedy, two sides of the same coin that is rarely so well balanced as in 50/50.

Audiences might expect it to be funnier than it really is. The movie doesn’t go broad but stays fairly grounded, committed to portraying Adam (Gordon-Levitt) and his struggle with cancer as realistically as possible while making room for comedy to spin out of his interactions with friends, family and the people his disease forces him to encounter. His best friend is Kyle who is that lovable, crude dickhead that Rogen always plays so well. There isn’t much heavy lifting for this character, but his own struggle to get past both his own fear and despair while trying to keep Adam’s mind off his amounts to a pretty heroic characterization. Rogen gets this across with small facial tics, giving the audience just enough time to see a glimmer of his real feelings before he slips back into his comfortable dipstick demeanor.

Adam, on the other hand, is a slightly more nice version of the character Gordon-Levitt played in (500) Days of Summer. That isn’t a knock on him because that movie did go a bit broad sometimes and its the actor’s natural wit and easy, goofy charm that helped sell it. Here, Adam is the most composed person in the room a lot of the time and that helps make his few outbursts and expressions of real fear and panic all the more powerful. Gordon-Levitt has great comic instincts and the pairing with Seth Rogen is perfect.

Since Will Reiser and Seth Rogen are friends in real life, and the movie is based on what they went through together when Reiser had cancer in his 20’s, a lot of what makes this friendship work is probably right on the page. A lot of credit has to go to both Rogen and Gordon-Levitt anyway due to the fact that the latter was sort of a last-minute replacement for James MacAvoy who originally had the role.

These men are artists!

Mixed into the ups and downs of Adam’s road through cancer is a big thread about his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard). On one level, she seems like the kind of aloof bitch that downtrodden geek characters date for a while in a certain type of comedy, only to find the better girl somewhere beyond. This aspect of the film is probably familiar to most people and maybe even worn a bit thin. It’s sort of easy to dismiss Rachel as a selfish bitch (who cheats on Adam and is in general no one’s idea of the loving, affectionate girlfriend) but I didn’t think that’s what was intended until the scene where she comes to get her stuff.

The thing about Rachel is that she is kind of lost in her own little art world. Adam, as a boyfriend, seems like more of a convenience until he actually gets cancer. Then while she seems to be trying to make it work, she slips away. Adam’s anger is definitely justified but I think I would have totally caved if she’d approached me on my porch like she does him. His dimissal of her is harsh, if deserved by this point. Then when he tells her to take her painting and she says “I made it for you” I’m sort of unconvinced that the movie earns the supposed catharsis that comes out of Rachel’s exit from Adam’s life.

And that intention is clear given the following scene. It rang a bit false to me, needless to say, and I’m not sure if it’s just a matter of my particular weakness for women or something that is actually out of synch in the film itself. So, as a criticism, take this with a grain of salt and see what you make of Rachel.

No one can deny that Anna Kendrick’s character is a better fit for Adam.

Katherine (Kendrick) is the doctoral student who Adam is hooked up with for therapy. He’s one of her first patients so she’s understandably nervous and unsure of herself which she plays off with a twitchy self-consciousness that makes her immediately endearing and cute. Immediately you know that this is the girl the movie is setting up as the counter to Howard’s Rachel. Okay, fair enough. Adam deserves a caring, funny, and smart girl to be there for him.

What impressed me is that the movie didn’t take the easy road of using the developing attraction between Katherine and Adam as a way to coast into the third act. Instead, it’s downplayed for as long as possible as she tries to get him to express his feelings. When he does, and some of them are about her, it’s pretty goddamn beautiful.

That they get together at the end is a spot of nice-guy wish fulfillment that is shored up by a great denouement.

50/50 is a great date movie. It’s sensitive enough about its subject matter not to go for the easiest and dumbest laughs while also being true enough to explore some of the absurdities of not only living with cancer, but dealing with the people in our lives. It deftly balances the drama of Adam’s condition with his relationships both romantic and otherwise. You’ll laugh, you’ll maybe cry, but you’ll most likely take something good away from this one so don’t miss it.