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Something funny happened on the way to chemotherapy

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen in 50/50. <<© 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC>>

Cancer isn’t inherently funny. Yet somehow 50/50 maintains a Mel Brooksian level of levity in the face of tragedy without cheapening the struggles of those battling cancer.
    Not bad for a Seth Rogen movie.
    Twenty-seven-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Inception) has been having back pain for months. When it starts to effect his jogging, he goes to a doctor. There, Adam gets his diagnosis: He’s got a rare form of spinal cancer that will require immediate chemotherapy and surgery.
    So Adam does what any reasonable person would do in this situation: He hits up Web MD for a real answer. Turns out, even with treatment, Adam’s odds are only — you saw this coming — 50/50.
    The worst part of cancer for Adam turns out to be informing his friends and family. Best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen: Kung Fu Panda 2) decides that Adam will be just fine and spends his time scheming of ways to use a cancer diagnosis to get himself and Adam laid. Because, you know, it worked for Lance Armstrong.
    Girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard: The Help), volunteers to look after Adam but refuses to spend time with him, enter the hospital with him or help him when he’s sick. You can see where that one’s going.
    Worst of all, mother (Anjelica Huston: When in Rome), already primary caregiver for Adam’s Alzheimer’s-ridden father, decides that smothering her baby boy with attention is the best way to cure a tumor.
    Adam concludes that it isn’t so much cancer that sucks but the people around him. Still, in spite of the constant pain and nausea that come with his treatment, Adam insists he’s fine.
    His only solace are his sessions with his pretty doctoral candidate therapist (Anna Kendrick: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) — who he vents to, rages at and flirts with — and his friends from chemotherapy, who peer-pressure him into eating pot-laced macaroons.
    Despite familial and personal chaos, Adam can’t ignore his cancer for too long. The film finds its heart when Adam begins to accept that there’s a good chance he’ll die.
    50/50 is a film that puts you through your emotional paces. Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) never lets you rest on one emotion for long, expertly mixing heart-wrenching hospital scenes with daffy comedy. In the most inspired sequence in the film, a stoned Adam leaves chemotherapy as giddy as, well, a stoner, and skips down a hall where he passes a body bag, a grieving family and a woman clearly in the late stages of cancer. He frowns for a moment at all these images harshing his buzz, then cracks up. It’s his possible future, but for now, he’s too high to care.
    The real power of 50/50 is its feeling of truth. Scribe Will Reiser (Da Ali G Show) can tell Adam’s story with such heart-rending, laugh-out-loud accuracy because he lived it. Gordon-Levitt gives a wonderfully human performance as a man living with the possible end of his life, at times infuriating, but always sympathetic. As a best friend who’s desperate to distract himself and his bud from the diagnosis, Rogen excels because he’s repeating his behavior with his pal Reiser.
    The genius in 50/50 is its simplicity. It doesn’t need a dramatic score or long speeches to manipulate you into caring. It just tells the story of Adam and his odd trip thru cancer treatment. It also doesn’t need the romance between Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick, but that’s a small misstep in a great story.
    Buy a ticket to this genuinely hilarious feel-good film. But bring some tissues lest you repeat this reviewer’s mistake of crying into her popcorn between laughs.

Great Cancer Comedy • R • 99 mins.