A film review by Craig J. Koban October 5, 2011
2011, R, 100 mins.
2011, R, 100 mins.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Adam / Seth Rogen: Kyle / Anna Kendrick: Katherine / Bryce Dallas Howard: Rachael / Anjelica Huston: Diane / Serge Houde: Richard / Philip Baker Hall: Alan / Matt Frewer: Mitch
Directed by Jonathan Levine / Written by Will Reiser
50/50 is a film
that I was not expecting to like nearly as much as I did.
Perhaps my reticence to see it was due to the fact that cancer is
so severely life altering and damaging that it’s not really something
that’s altogether funny, nor does it immediately come to mind as a
worthy subject matter for a comedy. Seeing
the ads for 50/50 I was reminded of 2007’s THE
BUCKET LIST, a pitilessly artificial and hackneyed feel-good dramedy
about men with cancer that I despised so much that I thought it should
receive, as I wrote in my review, “the PATCH ADAMS Lifetime Achievement
Award for ‘shamelessly contrived melodrama and falsely sentimentalized
50/50 also has the
very dubious task of being a “feel-good” motion picture comedy about
decidedly non-feel-goody (if I can use that term) material.
What Jonathan Levine’s (THE WACKINESS) film does with a real
compassion and observation is to deal with cancer tragically and
amusingly: it treats the disease and its poor victim with dignity,
respect, and sympathy. The
best way that people oftentimes deal with calamitous problems is with
equal parts despair and laughter.
The prospect of dying and dying very young is not a joke, but
50/50 finds a sincere authenticity in its ailing main character and those
around him, and it does so with a delicacy and understanding. Completely unlike the horrendously false-footed THE BUCKET
LIST, 50/50 deals with its material by being hilarious (but not in an
inappropriate or off-putting manner) while being emotionally resonating
and endearing (but not to the point of coming off as a one-note TV movie
of the week tearjerker).
The film’s sense of realism
is chiefly attributed to the fact that its writer, Will Reiser (friend of
50/50’s co-star and producer, Seth Rogen) was diagnosed with a highly
rare, but operable and survivable form of cancer when he was in his
20’s. 50/50 should in no
way be considered a biographical account of Eisner’s hard fought battle
with the disease, but the fact that he understands the disease in all of
its subtleties and observable traits lends greatly to the film’s
verisimilitude. We’ve seen
countless films before with people that have cancer, but 50/50 is unusually
perceptive for how young people go through various stages of initial
denial, eventually acceptance, paralyzing grief and despair, and sometimes
– and oddly enough – serenity within themselves when afflicted.
There’s rarely a counterfeit dramatic moment in the film as a
(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an up-and-comer in the field of radio when he is
given the worst news that anyone could possible be given by a doctor: he
not only has cancer, but such a rare form of spinal cancer that
chemotherapy most likely will not help and that surgery is a very likely a
death sentence. Like most
people, Adam takes the news with equal parts incredulity and indifference,
which perhaps is exacerbated by the manner his oncologist (Andrew Airlie)
delivers the news as if he’s impatiently ordering food off of a fast
food menu. Part of the film’s macabre sense of humor is in moments like
this, which also have a level of painful truth to them: how many of us
have had doctors with such inordinately terrible communication skills or
bad bedside manners?
Of course, all of those dear
to him react quite differently to the painful news: His BFF, Kyle (Seth
Rogen), at first nearly vomits at the news (in a funny scene), but later
he tries to take the situation and try to spin doctor it to make
Adam chipper (“If you were a Las Vegas slot machine, you’d have the
best odds!” he hilariously deadpans). Adam’s work colleagues respond with either sadness,
awkwardness, or in one instance, inappropriateness (“I’m gonna miss
you,” his boss abnoxiously whispers).
His mother (a razor sharp and spot-on perfect Angelica Huston)
responds as most mothers would: with panicking anxiety and an immediate,
knee-jerk reaction to smother the child she could lose (she also has to
deal simultaneously with her husband that suffers from near-crippling
Alzheimer’s). Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) swears to
stand by him no matter what, but then selfishly cheats on him.
Finally, there is Adam’s very young and very attractive new
therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) whose own troublesome inexperience at
her job almost mirrors the uncertainty that Adam is going through while
The one nitpick I do have with
the script for 50/50 is how Howard’s girlfriend character is essentially
written as a plot device to propel the narrative forward and give credence
to a potential new romantic relationship between Adam and his cute new
therapist. I think that Howard, a lovely and assured actress, can’t
quite pull off the unnerving and borderline despicable self-centeredness
of her part. Furthermore, it
does not take a fortune-teller to see that Adam and Katherine – albeit
rather slowly and inelegantly – will end up together, which maybe the only disingenuous element of an otherwise truthful film. Yet, what makes the mechanical nature of this courtship work
is Kendrick herself, who creates a real sweet vulnerability, youthful
naivety, a noble minded tenderness, and a sense of unease of knowing
whether she has what it takes to be a game-changer in her profession.
She creates a plausible woman that is torn between her professional
duties and obligations to Adam and her own fretfulness about just how
personal she should get with her new patient.
One thing is for sure: Kendrick is a radiant and infectious
presence in the film.
The film does work
stupendously in terms of balancing merriment and misery.
Many laughs are to be had with Adam’s chemo sessions with some
old codgers (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who introduce the young
man to weed, albeit in desert form, as a way to curb his depression and
symptoms. Then there are
hilarious moments that shows Kyle’s advice on how to deal with the
disease: in short, use it as a way to score with chicks, because sympathy from
them will get Adam laid (which, after some initial stumbling blocks, does
work). There is also a very
amusing moment when Adam asks for Kyle’s assistance with shaving his
head, a proactive move seeing as he will lose his hair to chemo.
Adam rightfully asks Kyle what he uses his clippers for, which
concludes with a
predictably off color and funny response from Kyle.
Adam uses them anyway. If you're possibly going to die, who cares of
you use clippers on your head that has touched you friend's junk.
Adam uses them anyway. If you're possibly going to die, who cares of you use clippers on your head that has touched you friend's junk.
What’s key here is that the film’s potentially contentious mixture of drama and comedy never feels forced. The miracle of 50/50 is how audaciously forthright it is with its characters, their complex web of emotions, and how everyone in the film finds they own unique – if sometimes rather unorthodox – means of dealing with a debilitating disease. Front and center, though, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is emerging as one of our most reliably understated and natural actors working today. He’s a kind of uncharacteristic young performer that’s not encumbered (as so many are) with overreaching for dramatic effect or being annoyingly idiosyncratic in a role. What Levitt does here – in a very tricky and thankless part – is to evoke how a young, mild mannered, congenial, and easy-going man like Adam struggles to find a means of coping with his disease without coming completely unglued. He confidently captures the emotional pendulum that everyone, I think, goes through when dealing with such a lousy and potentially fatal ordeal. Levitt’s finely modulated and delicately poised performance mirrors 50/50’s difficult hodgepodge of crude and bawdy humor and heartfelt sentiment. By the time the film concludes, you are left with an overwhelming sense that 50/50 has achieved an uncommon depth and a refreshing lack of sanctimonious phoniness.
It really does become a feel-good comedy about cancer…not an easy task.