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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Entertaining 50/50 never commits to any one subplot
Half measures
Gordon-Levitt (left) holds it all together.
Gordon-Levitt (left) holds it all together.

In the opening scene of the comedy-drama 50/50, 27-year-old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) jogs through downtown Seattle. As he comes to a stoplight, another jogger trots past him across the street, ignoring the illuminated red hand. But Adam stays put. He's a guy who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and gets his exercise in a way that doesn't break traffic laws. Adam is safe and sensible - and being safe and sensible means you can keep out of your life things as random and chaotic as cancer with a coin-flip survival rate...right?

That's the setup, anyway, and it's one that screenwriter Will Reiser, working from his own experience being diagnosed with a rare tumor in his 20s, almost completely ignores from that point forward.

50/50 is also kind of about the darkly comic relationship between Adam and his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen). It's kind of about the bond Adam forges with a pair of fellow chemotherapy patients (Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall), and occasionally about Adam's difficulty dealing with his overprotective mother (Anjelica Huston). It's kind of about the relationship between Adam and the inexperienced hospital therapist, Katie McKay (Anna Kendrick).

All of those ideas are full of potential, and yet it never feels as though 50/50 is entirely sure which of them the movie is about.

The confusing part is, at any given moment, you're probably watching something fairly effective. The interplay between Adam and Kyle provides plenty of opportunity for Rogen to be at his Rogen-est, a potty-mouthed unapologetic stoner and amiable goofball with a heart of gold. The scenes with Hall and Frewer capture the battlefield camaraderie of fellows who understand one another's fears. Kendrick is typically adorable, never falling back on simple neurotic tics to convey a young professional trying to move from textbook-approved tactics to trusting her instincts.

But it seems as though director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) is working with a collection of missed opportunities. As easy as the rapport is between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen, Reiser doesn't allow their relationship to build or evolve in meaningful ways. There's a clumsiness to the way the film deals with Adam's artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who becomes an easy villain-bitch.

If anything holds it all together, it's Gordon-Levitt, who has grown into a happy exception to the rule that child actors don't become good adult actors. He builds the complexity into Adam, remaining fundamentally sympathetic even as his focus on his own frightening situation makes it hard for him to appreciate the ways the people around him are feeling their own pain.

50/50 manages to be more than a collection of caustic anecdotes because of how committed Gordon-Levitt is to Adam's humanity. Which makes it all the more frustrating that 50/50 is merely good instead of great.

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