It’s hard to imagine screenwriter Will Reiser pitching a dramedy about cancer to the folks at Mandate Pictures and having them be receptive to it, but when you see the end result that is 50/50, it’s easy to understand why they gave the film the green light.
The film, directed by Jonathan Levine (of The Wackness fame), centers on the quiet and sedate life of Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Painting a detailed visual picture of how Adam exists, the movie opens with him going for a morning jog against the stately, sweeping backdrop of Seattle as Jacuzzi Boys’ “Bricks or Coconuts” plays on his headphones (the first in a string of songs that compose one of the best soundtracks in recent memory). At one point during this scene, Adam is stopped at a pedestrian crosswalk. A fellow jogger sprints past carelessly in spite of the signal being red. Even though Adam sees that there aren’t any cars coming, he waits for the light to turn green–a strong indication of the type of overly cautious person he is, which drives home the cruel irony of him being diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer after he goes to the doctor to see why he has been having back pains.
Where comic relief is concerned, Adam’s best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who works with him at a local radio station called SPR (presumably a nod to NPR), is there to wax poetic about the benefits of cancer: Getting pity fucked. He is also just generally full of good observations, like, “You smell like you just fucked the cast of The View” after Adam uses his girlfriend Rachael’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) shampoo. Also there for hilarity is Adam’s mother, Diane (the always amazing Anjelica Huston), who is ridiculously over the top in her concern for her son’s condition.
The only person who can get Adam through his turmoil is Katherine (Anna Kendrick, who you recognize from Twilight and Up in the Air), a 24-year-old therapist in training who is using her treatment sessions as material for her dissertation. Adam is merely her third patient, a fact he takes in stride. The rapport they share is at first reluctant as Adam is fairly closed off in the beginning, gradually realizing that she genuinely cares about his well-being, more so than Rachael, who ends up cheating on him and breaking his heart.
As the film arrives at its third act, Reiser builds the script to an emotional crescendo. So much so that if you don’t cry during this movie, there’s a good chance you might be a robot. The conclusion is both expected and unexpected, in many ways emulating the open-ended nature of The Graduate and Garden State in that the couple is not exactly sure what they’re supposed to do next now that they’ve overcome so many obstacles.