50/50 mixes comedy and cancer, but it’s the drama that will win you over.
The last movie that tried to mix cancer and comedy was funny People. It worked about 60% of the time. 50/50 is considerably better – mostly because it’s better written and because Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a flawless performance as the guy facing The Big C.
Funny People showed that it’s possibly to make a good comedy that deals with cancer, though, at times, the comedy felt forced. Perhaps 50/50 is both funnier and more poignant because it was written Will Reiser, a cancer survivor himself. Although there are undoubtedly some events that were inspired by his battle with cancer, it should be noted that Reiser’s protagonist, Adam [Gordon-Levitt] both had a different form of cancer and underwent chemotherapy [Reiser went straight to the surgery option].
That Reiser knows how to mix humor and poignancy is apparent right away. After experiencing back pain, Adam has seen a doctor and we get to see him in the doctor’s office as the diagnosis is given. The doctor [Andrew Airlie] can barely make eye contact and gives his diagnosis in mumbled medical terminology a couple of times before Adam insists on knowing what he’s saying – then protests that he can’t have cancer because, ‘I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I recycle.’
Things appear to be further on the downswing when he’s given the name of a therapist, Katherine [Anna Kendrick], who turns out to be pretty new at her job – he’s her third patient! Some of the film’s best moments come as they both try to figure out how to deal with their respective situations.
Adam’s best friend, Kyle [Seth Rogen], seems to be the fun-loving lout we expect whenever we see Rogen, and he doesn’t let us down – setting up a surprise party at the public radio station we they both work – and milking his friend’s illness to get laid. Indeed, he carries on throughout as if nothing had changed, but a brief moment with Adam in Kyle’s bathroom reveals just how much Kyle is working to maintain that appearance.
The there are Adam’s parents, Richard [Serge House] and Diane [Anjelica Huston]. Richard suffers from Alzheimer’s and doesn’t always recognize Adam, while Diane’s first reaction to the news is, ‘I’m moving in!’ It takes an insight from Katherine to get Adam and Diane on the same page, and the moment works beautifully when it happens, because Huston – who can play BIG so well, instead plays small, vulnerable.
Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer have a few scenes as Adam’s fellow chemo patients, Alan and
Finally, there’s Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael [Bryce Dallas Howard], a seemingly sincere woman who is no such thing. Howard should be careful – between Rachael and The Help’s Hilly Holcombe, she could find herself typecast as villains if she’s not careful. She’s so good at being just the opposite!
Both Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick give riveting performances. Gordon-Levitt is so natural as Adam that you never feel like this is an entertainment, or that he’s pretending. Kendrick plays Katherine’s intelligence and eagerness to help, balanced against an awareness that she doesn’t really know, in her heart, what she’s doing – she’s followed a prescribed set of behaviors in which she hasn’t quite fully invested herself.
Jonathan Levine directed mostly by pointing the camera and letting the actors’ performances fill the screen. He never moves the camera unnecessarily [harder than it sounds], nor does his direction intrude into the storytelling. Even during the film’s funniest moments, he does not feel the need to pump the pacing, but he never lingers overly long during the most dramatic and poignant moments.
In a way, Levine’s decision to show restraint, technologically, allows us to know the characters in a deeper, truer way, and makes every important moment feel just right.
I originally planned to see 50/50 on Friday, but the theater I chose had taken this low budget, indie flick and stuck it in its ‘enhanced experience’ theater [meant for action flicks, 3D movies and lavish, big budget affairs] and I simply refused to pay an extra $3 because the theater wanted to grab a little extra cash. If other chains have done the same thing, it’s probably cost them a lot of customers and will likely impact the film’s grosses in a negative manner.
That would be a shame, because 50/50 is a small gem of a film. It’s heartfelt and genuine – in its humor, its drama and in those moments [and there a surprising number of them] where the two overlap. I found that I had moments where I was laughing and crying simultaneously.
The final scene waves at a typical Hollywood ending, but in such a way as to let us know that it really isn’t, quite, that thing – and lets us leave the theater on a moment of laughter. 50/50 isn’t the wildest ride in town, but it’s definitely one of the most exhilarating!
Final Grade: A+
“50/50” is a film about the serious subject of dealing with cancer but it is handled with honesty and some humor. The central character has the cancer and has a 50/50 chance of survival. You learn how he and those who know him react to the situation. Definitely for an adult audience. Fine performances from all.
GRADE = “A-“
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