Dir. Jonathan Levine
(2011, R, 100 min)

I only made it through about four episodes of Showtime’s The Big C, a half-hour series about a woman (Laura Linney) who responds to a terminal-cancer diagnosis by getting a new lease on life. The problem with the show (though perhaps it improved after I stopped watching) was that it was so focused on being a cancer comedy ā€“ how bold, how transgressive! ā€“ that it smiled and laughed and joked its way into complete tonal incoherence. Linney, usually a faultless actress, was forced to mug her way through scenes meant to convey how liberated she was, but which instead made her seem demented, and shockingly unsympathetic for a woman with a deadly disease.

50/50 shows what’s wrong with The Big C. It’s about cancer, which isn’t funny, but also about the circumstances surrounding diagnosis and treatment, which sometimes are. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the very best young actors in Hollywood, stars as Adam, a Seattle radio producer who goes to the doctor for an aching back and learns he has a malignant tumor on his spine. His best friend Kyle is played by Seth Rogen, delivering a variation of his trademark lovable-lout persona; in this case he’s at his best when he’s more lovable and less lout. His inexperienced crisis counselor is played by Anna Kendrick not unlike the brittle young professional she played in Up in the Air. His overbearing mother is played by Anjelica Huston. And there’s a subplot involving Adam’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father, but it’s underdeveloped and a touch more tragedy than this film needs.

There’s nothing especially surprising about this film, which develops mostly how we expect, but it’s funny and touching in good proportion, without straining for either effect. It’s a tricky balance for writer Will Reiser, whose own cancer struggle inspired his screenplay, and director Jonathan Levine. The saying goes that dying is easy and comedy is hard. Try doing both at the same time.