Watching 50/50, I was reminded of the films of James L. Brooks, and not only because one character references Terms of Endearment. At his best (Terms, Broadcast News), Brooks' ability to blend drama, humor, romance, and a general sense of mainstream, respectable sophistication was nearly unrivaled. He's fallen on hard times with the largely forgettable Spanglish and the completely toxic How Do You Know, but 50/50, crisply directed by Jonathan Levine, is a fine torchbearer.
The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a bright, clean-living radio producer whose existence is sidelined when a cancerous nerve sheath tumor is discovered. Equal parts horrified, depressed, and angry, Adam, only 27, is forced to undergo extensive chemotherapy and wrestle with his mortality. Ever by his side is his faithful, gregarious best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen). There is also Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his girlfriend. She claims she is ready and willing to support and care for him, but her inner reluctance is clear.
The performances are across-the-board excellent. As Adam, Gordon-Levitt, a promising rising star in general, delivers his finest performance to date. With effortless charisma and closely observed emotions, he lets us inside Adam's pain and creates a compelling, easy-to-root-for protagonist. Rogen nicely shades his usual performance--the pot-smoking, loud-mouthed, easygoing slacker extraordinaire--with a certain melancholy. His chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is as good as his chemistry with James Franco in Pineapple Express. (We need a movie with those three together, stat.)
Bryce Dallas Howard shines with a tough, fairly unsympathetic role. She wisely decides to not play Rachael as an all-out witch, but rather a conflicted young woman in over her head and unsure how to proceed without causing significant hurt. Also terrific is Anna Kendrick as Adam's therapist and potential love interest. Those who saw her Oscar-nominated performance opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air know what she's capable of--an incredibly charming mixture of human warmth and all-business anxiety--and she's as good here as she was there. Before I run out of glowing adjectives, let's just say Anjelica Huston (as Adam's uptight, concerned mother) and Philip Baker Hall (as a fellow patient) turn in performances as good as you would expect from such seasoned vets.
Reportedly autobiographical for screenwriter Will Reiser, a close friend of Rogen's and a cancer survivor, 50/50 handles the sinister, sad subject of disease in a very honest, poignant, funny, and heartfelt way and is one of the better movies I've seen this year.