50/50 (2011)

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen commiserate in the cancer dramedy "50/50"

Written by Will Reiser

Directed by Jonathan Levine

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston and Philip Baker Hall

Cancer is not a universal theme. It is not a funny theme. On screen it can feel hackneyed and used as emotional highway robbery. In Will Reiser’s script “50/50”, originally titled “I’m With Cancer” and based on his own experiences with Reiser’s disease, cancer feels contagiously relatable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a 27 year old radio producer who seems to be coasting along comfortably in a job he has a genuine passion for, a gorgeous and loving girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and basically the most satisfying best friend and co-worker on earth, Kyle (Seth Rogen). He’s assigned a social worker to help him deal with the emotional difficulties of treatment. She’s a grad student played by Anna Kendrick, in a similar capacity to her role and performance in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” from a couple years ago. She’s green, she’s earnest, she’s awkward and eventually gets better at her job.

Adam has been experiencing some lower back discomfort for a few weeks, so he finally goes to a doctor to get himself checked out, assuming he’s been sleeping wrong. He’s told, rather unceremoniously, that he has a spinal tumor (the official name of which I can’t even begin to pronounce) and must immediately begin treatment. The rest of the film is his reaction, the reaction of those around him and what happens to him. 50/50 was written by Will Reiser, a real life cancer survivor, who has found a way to marry the horrible, personal journey of life threatening illness with some genuine comedic flare and an ability to tug at the audience’s heart strings without resorting to melodrama.

The filmmakers originally cast James McAvoy in the lead, but he apparently dropped out after filming his first few scenes, over ‘artistic differences’ and was quickly replaced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who imbues the role with a quiet, reserved sense of shock. Most of the film he plays the roll with a static nature, leaving the bulk of emoting to the people around him, namely Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard and his mother, played by Angelica Huston as a worry wart. Levitt’s presence as an actor is similar to that of McAvoy, so I can see why the chose each actor. They’re both in their late 20’s-early 30’s, but they both maintain boyishly soft good looks, are both short, adding to their boyish appearance and while both are great actors with range, they both specialize in presenting a more reserved, less proactive kind of character.

A movie like “50/50” needs just that kind of presence to feel as believable as it can. When someone is sick, most of the time they want to get better. They’ll take all the necessary drugs, do all the necessary treatments, see all the proper doctors. However, once they’ve had their treatments, taken their pills, seen the specialists, they go home. They sit. They eat. They watch television. There isn’t much else one can do but wait it out and hope that modern medicine does its job.

Meanwhile, for people who aren’t sick but care about the sick person, their entire lives are turned upside down and they constantly feel like they need to be proactive in order to help their loved one- there’s nothing specific they can do, so they try to do too much in the hopes of getting something right along the way. Levitt wonderfully conveys the numbness that comes with a life threatening illness. He sees humor in some of his darker moments, he grows immune to people’s emotions, as he tries to decipher his own path through the illness and above all, the guy looks sick. Normally an abstainer of all substances, Levitt’s Adam begins chemo therapy alongside a couple of elderly fellow cancer patients, one of whom is played by veteran thespian and P.T. Anderson favorite Phillip Baker Hall as a wily elder statesman of cancer who seems to take his illness in stride, teaching Adam the joys of marijuana to help with the chemo. Levitt is very convincing and very relatable- but more so are his friends and family members. Bryce Howard dotes on him perfectly, but cracks begin to surface in her commitment early on and, well, dramas weren’t made out of open and honest, healthy relationships playing out on screen.

Seth Rogen plays his best friend and gets the bulk of screen time outside of Levitt. In many ways, Rogen once again plays the same character he has always played; a loveably sex obsessed pothead. Rogen had a strong hand in getting the film made, as the script was written by his friend. I give Rogen credit that even though he might be playing virtually the same character he always plays, albeit facing a new crises, he’s at least lending his unique talents and marquee status to a subject matter that is either wildly taboo in comedy or is treated with a kind of heavy hand the can alienate mass audiences and relegate the subject matter to Lifetime Original MOW’s. He’s also very believable as a friend who isn’t sure precisely how to help, but will do anything he can if he knew it would. There are moments in the film where Rogen strikes the perfect tone of someone goofy doing their best to be serious, much like real life.

Rogen is aided in his quest by Angelica Huston as Adam’s lonesome and overbearing mother, shackled by a husband suffering from Alzheimers and a son who wants to be left alone. Anna Kendrick rounds out his support system in her aforementioned role as a newbie hospital therapist. She’s charming and sweet but once again the movies lead us to believe that if you’re an interesting enough case, your therapist will take a very personal interest in you. The contrivance is a little weak- she has her own issues, she mentions Facebook status issues with an ex-boyfriend to show that she’s normal, gives Levitt a ride home- but the relationship is built in interesting enough ways that it’s forgivable. In movies, a character has to have something else to look forward to besides surviving. There needs to be a reward. They either get the money or they get the girl. Even in a film about cancer, it’s not enough to get your health.
Perhaps the brilliance in attacking a film about cancer as a dramedy is that it’s truer to life. Even in our darkest hours there are people and moments in which we can’t help but laugh, either because of the extreme and unbelievable nature of our circumstances or because, well, something is so funny it breaks through our outer layer of grief and depression. Likewise, the horrible nature of illness and disappointment in life can leave us cold and immune to empathy. “50/50” captures these moments with a delicate hand. I will admit that I cried at one particular segment in the film, but that is because I, too, have faced life-threatening illness. The film captures some of the procedural elements of being sick and being treated that are all too visceral no matter what angle you approach it from.

“50/50”’s heart and mind is in the right place, striking a perfectly balanced tone, exploring all the social elements of a grave illness while not skimping too hard on the medical procedural stuff- Time passes faster in the movie, but what film can afford to express months of recovery when you’ve got emotions and relationships to develop and storylines to wrap up?

We watch Adam discover he has cancer, we watch how it affects the people around him and we see and inkling of his recovery process. The odds were 50/50 and given that the writer based the script off his own experiences, it’s not hard to guess the outcome of the story. The beauty in the journey is how the filmmakers and actors captured the real tone of illness and survival. The chances of the main character may have been 50/50, but the likelihood that this film will warm your heart and give you a belly laugh is approximate certainty.

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