09/27/2011 07:50 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2011

Review: 50/50

We are seeing the flowering at the moment of a new generation of young actors, who have the versatility, the adventurousness and, most important, the talent to play a wide variety of characters with equal conviction.

Ryan Gosling obviously leads the pack. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not far behind. He has shown a range and a willingness to take on both risky material and commercial vehicles without slacking off in their intensity or effort.

Gordon-Levitt's latest is 50/50, which teams him with Seth Rogen for an affecting buddy comedy that is as much about the tears as the laughs. This film, written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine, was generated by Rogen and best friend Reiser when Reiser was, in fact, diagnosed with cancer.

Yet for all the potential pitfalls in this kind of material -- which can easily turn into weepy soap operatic melodrama -- Reiser keeps the tone determinedly upbeat, sorrowful without being self-pitying. It's an intricate balancing act, one that Gordon-Levitt and Rogen prove worthy of.

Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a public-radio reporter at an NPR outlet in Seattle. He's a runner, a non-driver and he lives with his artist-girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). But a persistent pain in his back leads him to the doctor -- where he is told he has a rare kind of tumor on his spine. He faces radiation, chemotherapy and, if he's lucky, surgery -- but even then, his chance of surviving intact are only 50 percent (hence, the title).

It quickly becomes apparent that his girlfriend isn't having any of the "in sickness and in health" business. When she bails, Rogen's Kyle, Adam's best friend, becomes his main source of support: driving him to chemo, helping him score (and consume) medical marijuana and even trying to assist in finding women by exploiting Adam's potentially tragic condition as a hook-up-worthy attraction.

Adam must contend with the ministrations of his over-attentive mother (Anjelica Huston), who he keeps at arm's length. He makes new friends at chemo (Matt Frewer and the invaluable Philip Baker Hall) and starts seeing a therapist, a rookie named Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is still learning the routine.

What gives 50/50 its wit and its poignancy is the juxtaposition of the absurd or silly moments that Adam confronts, even as he views them through the lens of imminent mortality. The prospect of death, to paraphrase the old saying, focuses the mind wonderfully, stripping away what suddenly seems superfluous and superficial and allowing Adam to devote his time to the things that matter to him, to say the things that need saying and do the things that need doing.

At the same time, he's trying to muster his strength for the bigger fight: the one to stay alive in the face of iffy odds. The whiplash of rollercoaster emotions is a hard thing to play convincingly but both Gordon-Levitt and Rogen handle the challenge with skill and finesse.

Gordon-Levitt is an actor who can transform, in just a look, from opaque to transparent without being obvious about it. He plays Adam as the kind of nice guy who never protests at life's injustices -- until he finally gives himself permission to do so. Even then, he makes his complaints seem justified and, if anything, understated.

Rogen plays a character similar to many he's played before, with a serious exception: He shows us both sides of this loud, hard-partying buddy, who rarely lets the depth of his concern and sadness peek out. Again, it's a subtle shading in a big, lusty performance.

Kendrick, so good in Up in the Air, is fine as the hesitant but serious-minded therapist who discovers that her own emotions may be a handicap for this job. Huston is touching as a woman dealing with both an Alzheimer's-stricken husband and a son coping with a potentially terminal illness.

50/50 no doubt will be dismissed by critics who distrust movies that deal with feelings, rather than ideas. But it proves that it's possible to be emotional and thoughtful -- and funny -- at the same time.

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