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MOVIE REVIEW: '50/50' offers a different angle to dealing with cancer

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT stars in 50/50
 ANJELICA HUSTON stars in 50/50.
 BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD stars in 50/50
 SETH ROGEN stars in 50/50
 ANNA KENDRICK stars in 50/50
 50/50 

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT stars in 50/50 ANJELICA HUSTON stars in 50/50. BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD stars in 50/50 SETH ROGEN stars in 50/50 ANNA KENDRICK stars in 50/50 50/50 

50/50

(R)

***Think quick -- besides cancer, what do all of the following movies have in common: "Stepmom," "Terms of Endearment," "Beaches," "Wit," "A Walk to Remember," "Love Story," "Marvin's Room" and "Sweet November?" Give up? The patient with cancer is always female. This is far from a complete list but these are the most successful titles in this razor-thin, downer genre. Could it be that studios recognize that women in the audience relate better to movies with female patients? As all of these movies are also chick-flicks, the answer could be and probably is yes.

The biggest thing "50/50" doesn't have in common with the above films and most all other cancer movies is that the patient is male. It's also rated "R" for language, sex, nudity and drug use and -- most importantly -- you'll laugh more than half of the time. It's not often we get a movie that takes this many chances -- and actually works.

Something else quite similar to "50/50" came out in 2009; the marathon-length train wreck that was "Funny People." Written and directed by Judd Apatow, it starred Adam Sandler as a cancer patient and it failed on almost every level, the most glaring being Sandler. One of the few bright spots in that movie was Seth Rogen, himself prone to occasional Sandler-like unfunny abrasiveness yet he was able to emerge smelling like a relative rose.

Rogen (as Kyle) takes on another secondary role in "50/50" and supplies a great deal of its ample humor. This is all the more impressive as Kyle is an obnoxious, misogynist blow-hard with bad taste and no manners and is a perfect on-screen counterpart to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the guy with the cancer who couldn't be more unassuming or low-key.

Taking over for original choice James McAvoy less than a week before shooting began, Gordon-Levitt offers further evidence of a type of wide emotional range rarely found in former child actors. Because Adam is written to be passive, say little, express even less and put up with a lot more than a man with cancer should, Gordon-Levitt's carefully measured rendering is simply stunning.

Rather than go the obvious route of showing Adam withering away and trying to come to terms with his illness, writer Will Reiser and director and director Jonathan Levine show the ripple effects on those around him. Kyle reacts with nervous jokes while using Adam's condition to hit on girls.

Bryce Dallas Howard co-stars as Adam's not-quite-live-in girlfriend Rachael who, after being told of his condition, isn't sure whether to go saintly and stay with him or to slither away like a heartless cad. Wanting to stick around (make that move in) in order to help Adam every waking moment is his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston); a scenario that frightens him more than the cancer.

The remainder of the acid-soaked humor comes courtesy of other cancer patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer), two seniors who deal with chemotherapy with profanity, gallows humor and lots 'o weed.

Rounding out the crack cast is Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick ("Up in the Air") as Adam's grief councilor Katherine. Starting out almost too timid and tentative, Katherine represents the mind-set of most of us when interacting with cancer patients. We think they should be coddled, pampered, glad-handed, insolated or smothered which might be apropos in some cases, but not with Adam or many like him. They don't want anyone to go soft or skittish; it only reminds them of their plight and it serves nobody very well.

The titles mentioned in opening paragraph are (for the most part) very well-made films loaded with the utmost of sincerity and good intentions. They provide a perspective to a facet of our lives that is difficult to address in cinematic terms and each deserves their dedicated followings and respective accolades.

What "50/50" offers is counterbalance and a different angle; a unique way to view a dire situation. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it is valid and might actually provide some of its viewers some treasured advice and comfort tips they might heartily call on down the road; whether they're Adam or everyone he knows. (Summit Entertainment)