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Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers his best performance in genre-bending weeper

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4 Stars

You would expect a film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen as best buddies to have more than its share of intertextual references, raunchy genitalia jokes and sweet bromantic revelry. But you wouldn’t expect to cry. For every caustic one-liner and hip indie-rock song in 50/50,there are just as many hanky-requiring sentiments and just as many moments of stomach-churning disquiet. This is a film that exists in the nexus of comedy, tragedy and romance, with a genre-bending potency shared by few others. It doesn’t start as a pop-savvy comedy and later become a syrupy romance or a dying-man dirge; it is all three at once, from beginning to end, and each milieu feels bracingly authentic. Because few mainstream films get it right so consistently, 50/50 is something of a miracle.

Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a radio reporter in Seattle involved in a serious, if sexually unfulfilling, relationship with artist-girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). A routine medical checkup brings dire news: Despite a healthy smoke-free and drug-free life, the 27-year-old has a rare form of malignant spinal cancer – one that he has a roughly 50 percent chance of surviving. He’s soon shaving his head, undergoing chemo and attending mandatory sessions with a nervous grad-student therapist (Anna Kendrick) who is instantly positioned as Adam’s new love interest. Back at home, Rogen, in vintage sideman mode, tries to exploit Adam’s disease to get them both laid, while Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) copes with the news by turning the smothering up to 11.

There are minor, implausible details in 50/50; for a local public-radio talent, Adam lives in a luxurious abode suggesting a doctor’s salary, and Kendrick’s neophyte shrink would never have her own capacious office while still working on her dissertation. While each supporting character fulfills a familiar, relatable role – the unconditionally supportive best friend, the loving but nagging mom – the film is unfair to Rachael, a typical victim of the male gaze, whom we’re supposed to dislike from the opening frames because she won’t give Adam blowjobs. She turns out to be the movie’s morally bankrupt punching bag, another odious character for Howard, who, a month after playing the broadest stereotype in The Help, should start seeking a new agent.

But 50/50 has a compelling hook – I’ve never seen a movie about a 20-something dealing with a terminal illness, a story that first-time screenwriter Will Reiser took from his own battle with cancer – and it helps the film transcend its conventions. Every stage of grief is delicately, humanely expressed, and as the cancer worsens, you may experience the feeling of dying butterflies in your stomach. Kendrick is charming, Huston is extraordinary and Rogen is Rogen, but it’s Gordon-Levitt who impresses most of all. This is, so far, his role of a lifetime, his most emotionally complex undertaking yet. (500) Days of Summer is a twee trifle by comparison.

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