Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left) copes with cancer and best friend Kyle (Seth Rogan, right) in '50/50.'

Gordon-Levitt's Chances Better than '50/50'

Dennis Harvey September 30, 2011

Gordon-Levitt is so good he compensates for the cancer comedy's lacks, even if he can't erase them.

As far as Martin Scorsese and a fair number of other people are concerned, the best American actor of his generation has already been determined, and the award goes to . . . Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, who rather surprisingly (since he's not usually thought of as an inherent box-office dynamo) was recently determined to be the best-paid one, too.

We could certainly do worse, though it disturbs me that my favorite DiCaprio performances all date from so long ago (This Boy's Life, The Basketball Diaries, What's Eating Gilbert Grape). And while he can impersonate a adult authority and gravity with skill—particularly in The Aviator and Revolutionary Road—he's never fully shed the perpetual manboyishness whose trap as a movie-star lifestyle was knowingly etched by Sofia Coppola and Stephen Dorff in Somewhere.

DiCaprio's had the benefit of picking A-list prestige projects for at least a decade; even his popcorn movies (like the strangely similar, back-to-back Shutter Island and Inception) tend to be BFDs. That's hardly been the case for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's seven years Leo's junior and has had a very gradual rather than spectacular rise to a medium prominence from which he might blow up at any moment, or perhaps fail to and become a respected character actor/second lead.

It's unlikely anyone was primed to take him seriously after five seasons as the juvenile on 3rd Rock from the Sun, a horrible sitcom of depressing popularity. But after laying low a bit he chose indie films very wisely, and was striking in a variety of roles: As a psych-ward patient in Manic, a hardboiled hero in the very stylized high school noir Brick, a gay hustler in Mysterious Skin, a brain-damaged pawn to criminals in The Lookout and so forth. More recently he's mixed more indies (most notably 500 Days of Summer) with big-budget entertainments (a most surprising choice for G.I. Joe, one of the several exceptional actors semi-wasted as Leo's Inception footmen). He'll be conspicuously present in the next Batman and Spielberg's long-aborning Lincoln—clearly the future is bright.

Still, I wonder if even those hugely anticipated projects will do half as much for Gordon-Levitt as an actor—maybe even as a nascent star—as 50/50, the modestly scaled mainstream seriocomedy opening this week. This is the so-called “cancer comedy” (originally called, rather more memorably, I'm with Cancer) that's been posited as an envelope-pushing buddy flick for Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen as the guy coping with the Big C and the guy coping with having a best friend with the Big C.

That's part of it, although what's both interesting and frustrating about Will Reiser's script is that the buddy-comedy dynamic isn't quite developed or central enough to focus the narrative, the afflicted's other relationships even less so. Always diverting but neither as outrageous or poignant as it could have been, 50/50 is a flawed movie nonetheless well worth seeing for Gordon-Levitt's flawless performance.

He plays Adam Lerner, a 27-year-old Seattle public radio employee whose best (only?) pal is coworker Kyle, who's as haplessly crass as Adam is modest and self-effacing. Complaining of back pain and headaches, Adam gets a checkup and is stunned to learn he has a malignant tumor on his spine from a rare form of cancer; his estimated survival chances are spelled out in the film's title.

Alas, Adam's “support network” is a shaky one: Kyle's bright idea is that he should use this terminal sympathy card to pick up chicks; ever-intrusive mom (Anjelica Huston) greets the news with predictably unhelpful hysteria, while his father is out to lunch for good with advanced Alzheimer's. Adam's new girlfriend, artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), reacts by moving in and vowing “I'm here for you,” yet her sincerity is in doubt. The two fellow patients (Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer) he does debilitating chemo treatments with are much older, resigned and heavy on disconcerting gallows humor. The therapist he's been assigned to get through this (Anna Kendrick as Katie) is still working on her doctorate, even younger than he is and has a long ways to go on developing her couchside manner.

So Adam is more or less going it alone, which could be a subject for a more serious movie. But instead 50/50 spends a lot of time with amusing distractions—particularly Rogen and Kendrick (Up in the Air), who are both absolutely expert at getting their laughs yet do nothing here you haven't seen them do before. Adam seems personable and intelligent enough—why doesn't he have other, better friends? Why doesn't he ask for another therapist? (And why oh why does this have to be yet another movie that casually disregards all patient/therapist ethics? Everyone is Hollywood is in therapy—must their knowledge of its rules always be thrown out for the sake of lazy narrative convenience?) Briskly directed by Jonathan Levine of The Wackness, the movie's 99 minutes could have been usefully expanded a bit to allow Adam a more complex milieu to move around in.

Yet Gordon-Levitt is so good he compensates for the film's lacks, even if he can't erase them. While he can certainly play flamboyance (as in the recent Hesher), his work is usually subtle, and he fills the blanks of Adam's personality here with a thoughtfulness that's thoroughly absorbing—and often very funny, despite the character's role as “straight man” to a host of more broadly humorous types. Adam isn't the sort to burden others with his pain or sadness, but the actor makes us feel every emotion he's too conscientious to beg sympathy for. 50/50 isn't quite worthy of this performance, but that doesn't mean it isn't occasionally elevated toward something special by encompassing it.

I'm looking forward to seeing DiCaprio as Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover. (As Baz Luhrmann's Jay Gatsby, not so much.) But if/when the day comes when Gordon-Levitt gets a mainstream role that substantial and challenging, one suspects the pecking order for such parts in Hollywood is going to undergo a major shift.