Let's get one thing out of the way: disliking a movie where someone has cancer isn't the same as supporting cancer (whatever that would entail...), with that said 50/50 isn't really a great or outstanding movie, what it does - and it does it efficiently- is deliver a story about beating the odds without extreme corniness.
Movies about terminal patients can be done beautifully and with just the right amount of feeling (Terms of Endearment for example, which is even mentioned here) or they can be ludicrous weepfests that aim to move you even if you know the creative team could do better.
50/50, despite being based on real events, feels like another Judd Apatow-lite movie in which men-children grow up because life pretty much forces them to. Here it's Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Seth Rogen) whose lives turn upside down when the former is diagnosed with stage three cancer. Even if the sick one should be the most "important" character in the film, most of the attention is divided into how Kyle deals with the disease. He uses it to his advantage and convinces women to have sex with him because he's sad. Perhaps this film would've resulted a bit more interesting if the casting had been more creative. Aren't you sick of Rogen always playing the adorable man-child who learns his lesson in the end? Aren't you tired of Gordon-Levitt always playing the sensitive young man who gets his ass kicked by life? To continue its lazy, stereotypical casting the movie has Bryce Dallas Howard play Adam's bitchy, control freak girlfriend and Anna Kendrick as his cool-but-way-too-eager shrink. The only one who dazzles in the cast is Anjelica Huston who could give Shirley MacLaine a run for her money in the "imposing mamas with sick children" department. She makes all of her scenes thrive with the kind of life nothing else in the movie has.
All the imagery, rituals and traditions of Catholicism should result fascinating even to non-believers (or people of different faiths) which is why Nanni Moretti's Habemus Papam hooks you from its opening scene. We see a group of cardinals walking towards a room where they will vote for who is to become the next Pope. As the old men in red cassocks go towards their room, reporters shout at them trying to get an interview. This moment, perhaps because of its strange mix of realism and postmodernism, hints at the delicious way in which Fellini dealt with the church. When a Pope is finally elected (after a hilarious scene in which we realize all of them are praying not to be chosen) he has a problem: he doesn't think he's ready to do this job.
Therefore elected Pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is set to receive help from a psychiatrist (Moretti) until he decides it's better to escape and see what he's missing in the outer world. The movie then becomes a severely existentialist version of Roman Holiday as the old man meets new people, goes to therapy (Margherita Buy plays his chosen shrink) and relives one of his youth dreams improvising Chekhov in a hotel lobby.
Even if the ending feels a bit too facile and Moretti doesn't dig too deep into Melville's motivations or tries to deliver a political or spiritual punch, the film is the perfect mix of clever comedy and melancholic drama, with some scenes that are absolutely haunting (a setpiece accompanied by Mercedes Sosa's "Todo Cambia" results absolutely breathtaking).
Best in show might be Piccoli's performance filled with lovely nuances. His ability to evoke deep nostalgia with nothing but a sigh makes for quite a treat and the way in which he delivers his speeches will break your heart. Moretti might have the last laugh but Piccoli delivers the soul.
Grades: 50/50 **
Habemus Papam ***