Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelica Huston
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Cancer movies are tough. That could help explain why there's so few of them, and why so few are comedies. It's not exactly the easiest topic to navigate, nor one that'll have audiences rushing out in droves to see it, no matter how skillfully it's handled. Go for the comedy and risk coming off tasteless and tone-deaf. Go for the drama and risk being sappy and sentimental. You're walking a tightrope. The general advice has always been for screenwriters to just steer clear of the dreaded "C word" altogether, so you'd figure a comedic drama exploring the issue would really be a recipe for a disaster.And that's not even taking into account how you end it. The last thing anyone wants to see on screen is someone dying from cancer, yet you can't have them pull through either because that's pandering to the masses with a "feel good" ending that may not be true to life.That's why it's such a surprise Jonathan Levine's cancer dramedy 50/50 works so well. Intelligently written and skillfully performed, it succeeds by picking a tone and committing to it the entire way without wavering. It just simply decides to be honest, punctuating it with the right kind of realistic humor.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old Seattle public radio editor who's just been diagnosed with an extremely rare form of spinal cancer. After coldly being delivered the 50/50 survival prognosis he must inform those closest to him of the news, all of whom react differently. His best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen) sees the diagnosis as a golden opportunity for both of them to party and pick up women at bars. His girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) insincerely swears to stay by his side as if she's trying to convince herself. His mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) is in hysterics, calling every hour and threatening to move in, all while still caring for Adam's Alzheimer's afflicted father. In coping with the situation Adam befriends chemo patients Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer) and schedules weekly sessions with painfully inexperienced therapist Katharine (Anna Kendrick) who reveals he's only her third patient ever. As Adam starts opening up and sharing his feelings about the diagnosis, the two begin to take more than a professional interest in one another as he struggles to battle his illness.
Of the movies have tackled the topic of cancer before, most have chosen to incorporate it as plot point or sub-plot, never the main course, perhaps in fear that it's just too difficult or uncomfortable a topic to broach over a nearly two-hour time span on screen. What then usually happens is that it feels tasteless, thrown in where it has no place and used as a ploy to evoke sentimentality. Here the cancer is the story and it's written by Will Reiser, a friend of Seth Rogen's who was really diagnosed with a malignant spinal tumor and the screenplay's unusual in how it seems to hold nothing back, but still finds ways to be hilarious. Stranger still is Levine's gift at presenting the material in such an honest, matter-of-fact way that we don't feel the slightest bit awkward laughing along with what happens since the characters are also. It'll be tempting for many to say the film gets a lot of tiny details right but without experiencing something like this firsthand or know someone who has, that's too big a declaration to make. More accurately, it feels true by not sugarcoating any of the grimmer aspects, but still recognizing it's still okay to mock the absurdity of it all. Every situation can be absurd, it's just most movies lack the guts to go there, and when they do, the tone feels off. That isn't an issue here.
However you may feel about Seth Rogen as an actor there's no doubting he can say just about anything and get away with it. He's often hit or miss but this is one of the few times everything he says hits the mark and gets huge laughs at just the right moments. Only everyday schlub Rogen could make Kyle's attempts at using Adam's condition to try to get them both laid seem almost sweetly inoffensive and get away with a Patrick Swayze cancer joke. If Jack Black or Will Ferrell tried any of this they'd come off as creeps so his contribution shouldn't be overlooked. It helps he and Levitt have such great chemistry together that you actually believe these two have been best friends all their lives. As for JGL, it's fairly astonishing how well he meets both the physical (he actually did shave his head on screen in one take) and emotional requirements of a role that was originally supposed to be played by James MacAvoy (really?) until he dropped out just before filming. Levitt plays Adam as a great guy who got a raw deal, which, as simple as it seems, is sometimes what happens. There's nothing about what he does that seems overly sympathetic or attempts to pull on the heartstrings, which isn't a surprise since he's proven long himself an actor incapable of giving a dishonest performance if he tried.
A mark of a smart script is often that the secondary characters are depicted with precision and given realistic motivations. It takes a certain type of person to stick with someone through a cancer diagnosis and it's clear almost immediately that Adam's girlfriend Rachael isn't that person, but without giving too much away it's interesting how Bryce Dallas Howard's complicated performance makes it about more than just that. It's not easy having to play who many will rightfully consider "the bitch" of the movie, but she transcends that, making her an almost pitiable character. I believed someone would do what she did and exactly how she did it. Anna Kendrick's Katharine isn't what she appears to be at first either, her analytical, by the books approach to Adam's situation eventually giving way to her real desire to just go ahead and let him spill his guts. Since she excels at playing characters who use their intelligence as a defense mechanism, at times it feels as if Katharine's holding as much back as he is.
There are no surprises to be found on the way to the finale or when we get there, nor does the film necessarily reinvent the wheel in any department The surprises are in how deftly it handles a topic that's been botched by so many inferior efforts before it and avoids insulting the audiences' intelligence. And the saddest part is that no matter how smart and entertaining I tell someone it is they still won't see it because it's about cancer and I can't really blame them, even if they're missing out on the rare good one. It's one of those chronically uncomfortable topics that people go to the movies to escape so it's difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that a movie exploring it could be both brutally honest and life affirming, rarely succumbing to your typical disease movie sappiness by knowing it's a comedy first. Reading its synopsis, 50/50 would seem to be the least likely audience pleaser you could find, but luckily the results on screen prove otherwise.