Adam, a producer at an NPR radio station in Seattle, is out for a jog. While waiting for a stoplight to turn green, he reflexively reaches behind him to rub a sore muscle in his back.
But it’s not just a temporary ache. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) soon learns that he has a rare form of cancer on his spine. His prognosis isn’t great, maybe 50/50 at best. He’ll have to undergo radiation to shrink the tumor and then a risky operation to remove it.
Adam is 27.
That’s the set up for “50/50,” a modest comic drama that is one of this fall’s surprise pleasures. The film shows, matter-of-factly and with a healthy dose of humor, how Adam deals with the situation, and how his family, girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), best buddy (Seth Rogen) and colleagues do as well.
The film is loosely based on first-time screenwriter Will Reiser’s own bout with the disease. Given that he wrote this movie, viewers will know ahead of time there’s a better than 50/50 chance that things will end well.
Unlike so many other cancer and deadly disease movies, “50/50” isn’t about watching an ill protagonist check items off a bucket list, find true love just before breathing his last, or becoming noble through illness. (Decades ago, when Mad magazine parodied “Love Story,” it said the movie’s bedridden heroine suffered from Movie Star Disease, explaining, “That’s when you get more and more beautiful and then you die.”)
Rather, “50/50” is about Adam having the rotten luck to get cancer and then deal with it as best he can, coping along the way with the good, the bad and the funny.
In the movie, as in life, the people around him react in various ways to his disease. His girlfriend tries to be supportive but it’s just not in her. His bumbling best buddy is there for Adam, but isn’t above using his pal’s cancer as a surefire pick-up line with girls.
His over-protective mother (a lovely turn by Anjelica Huston) would be there 24/7 if he would let her, even as she copes with caring for Adam’s father, who’s fast disappearing into dementia. And there’s also a charmingly bumbling, tyro therapist (Anna Kendrick) who’s helping Adam to talk through his illness issues.
It’s a mark of the movie’s gentle approach, and sticking to the way things are rather than the way we would want them to be, that there’s a scene late in “50/50” in which Adam’s parents visit him in the hospital on the morning of his surgery. It’s a tricky operation and he could easily die on the table or end up paralyzed.
But in the scene, while his mother sheds tears and hugs him, his out-of-it father, rather than having a sudden dramatic moment of lucidity or saying something crazy but also poignantly to the point, instead proudly boasts to Adam that the new jacket he’s wearing is from Brooks Brothers. It’s a moment so bittersweet it breaks your heart.
Director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) finds a rhythm that works for the movie, mostly going for comedy but giving the dramatic moments their due. Gordon-Levitt continues to impress as a leading man of depth and wry comic flair (who’d have thunk it when he was just that weird looking little kid on TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun”?) and Kendrick and Rogan are sprightly fun.
Add “50/50” to your want to see list. And then make an appointment for your annual physical with your doctor.