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Josh Reviews 50/50

October 21st, 2011
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In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young man who is diagnosed with cancer.  (His physician gives him a 50/50 chance of survival, hence the title of the film.)  While his relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is rocked by this news, Adam finds surprising strength from his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen).  50/50 was written by Will Reiser and, as has been widely reported, is based on Mr. Reiser’s real-life experience of being diagnosed with cancer in his twenties, and his friendship with Seth Rogen.

Balancing comedy and drama in a film can be a very tricky thing, especially when true-live events come into play.  I thought about this issue last month after watching 30 Minutes or Less, a film about a young pizza boy (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who is kidnapped and has a bomb strapped to his chest, at which point he is forced to rob a bank to get money for his kidnapper.  That situation actually happened to a poor fellow back in 2003 (although the filmmakers claimed not to have been inspired by that incident).  Still, the parallel with real life events (that ended tragically) give the film a tension that runs throughout.  Sometimes I felt that helped the film, in that the story-line felt dangerous in a way that kept me engaged.  Other times I felt that hurt the film, in that it occasionally felt hard to laugh too hard at events that I know, in real life, ended up in a death.

Over-all I enjoyed 30 Minutes or Less, but compared to 50/50 that film feels like a fairy trivial, superficial lark of a movie.  50/50 aims for something deeper, and while it doesn’t always succeed, I really enjoyed the filmmakers’ ambition in crafting a story that is very, very funny, while also tackling some serious issues about mortality and friendship.

Yes, 50/50 is a comedy about cancer.  I suspect that topic kept many people away from this film, but I’m glad I saw it.  The film was directed confidently by Jonathan Levine (who also helmed the little-seen film The Wackness which I really loved), and more than just the presence of Seth Rogen reminds me of the work of Judd Apatow.  The focus on the friendship between guys, and the willingness of the film to mine comedy from tough real-life situations are all aspects I’ve really enjoyed in Mr. Apatow’s work.  50/50 is able to find that tricky balance of tone, allowing us to laugh along with the story while also engaging with the characters and their struggles.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been on quite a hot-streak lately (in films such as (500) Days of Summer and Inception), and he does a terrific job as the lead role here.  He is in practically every scene, and has to carry the burden of the film’s tough storyline — about a young man coming to grips with the fact that he very likely will not survive his disease — while still maintaining enough of a lightness for there to be some jokes in the movie.  Mr. Gordon-Levitt is extraordinarily likable, and the audience really roots for Adam (not just to survive his cancer, but also to hopefully find some happiness for himself in his life).  His rapport with Seth Rogen is terrific, and their friendship and easy banter is the beating heart of the film.  Mr. Rogen plays a familiar Seth Rogen character (the affable, somewhat crude but good-hearted friend), but he dials down his mania to a level that I felt worked very well for the film.  He delivers many of the film’s best punchlines, but he remains a real character and not a caricature.

The two main women in Adam’s life are also played by strong performers.  Bryce Dallas Howard is great as Rachael.  It’s pretty clear, right from early on, that this relationship is not going to work out, but Ms. Dallas Howard doesn’t allow Rachael to ever get too shrewish or exaggeratedly horrible.  She’s just not a great match for Adam, and though she does try to be there for him, her heart isn’t in it.  Then there is Anna Kendrick as Adam’s young psychiatrist (who he starts seeing, at the hospital’s recommendation, after his diagnosis), Katherine.  Just as we quickly recognize that Adam and Rachael aren’t a good match, it’s immediately clear (to the audience, if not the characters) that Adam and Katherine are perfect for one another.

It’s in this story, I felt, that the film makes it’s one major mis-step.  Without ever getting too gruesome or morbid, 50/50 trys to play things as real as possible.  But this story-line, of a young patient being treated by a beautiful young woman with whom he gradually falls in love, and vice versa, feels a little too movie-fantasy for my tastes.  It’s just a bit too easy.  None of that is to take anything away from Ms. Kendrick’s performance.  She’s beguilingly sweet, intelligent and empathetic, and I loved her scenes with Mr. Gordon-Levitt.  I bought into rooting for this budding romance, even while the more analytical side of my brain was commenting that the whole thing was a bit silly.

The great Anjelica Huston is phenomenal as Adam’s mother Diane.  Adam finds her difficult and overbearing, and indeed she is, though we can see that she’s struggling with an enormous burden all of her own.  And I was extraordinarily taken by the scenes with Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as two older men Adam meets during chemotherapy.  Both are actors who I remember fondly from TV shows of my youth (Mr. Baker Hall from his performance as Bookman, the tough-as-nails library cop from Seinfeld, and Mr. Frewer from his role as a time-traveling con artist from the future on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation), and it was great seeing both fine actors have a nice showcase here.

50/50 hasn’t done great business at the box office, but I quite enjoyed it.  Give it a chance, if it’s still playing anywhere near you.

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