Sunday, September 11, 2011


Sprightly and spongy, the cancer comedy 50/50 warms us on the fact that however serious a subject can be, pot and sex jokes and bromance gestures can fit in anywhere these days.  For a film of ambition and comic-serious motives, this is still a film that co-stars Seth Rogen.   It will be determined how this plays out in the long run-- I eerily envision some kind of buddy flick, cannabis-infused Seth Rogen\Holocaust feature at some point soon enough-- but under the direction of Jonathon Levine (The Wackness) and written by Will Reiser, a bud of Rogen's whose debut feature as a writer is inspired by his own personal struggle, there's an agreeable, pleasing roly-poly appeal.  The plight of a young man, not yet turned thirty, whose faced with a rare, and tongue-twisting, monosyllabic form of cancer is enough to tug at heartstrings, but the slightly unwieldy 50/50 takes its time to really hit its stride.  Perhaps like its main character, the film is a bit unsure of itself, and early on settles on easy jokes in the name of potentially awkward subject matter.  However, there's a shift that occurs towards the middle of the feature that continues to its finish that somehow makes the film almost appear better than it actually is, and perhaps even a bit graceful-- for a film that could very easily give way to simple cinematic manipulation, it never quite feels like such.  All of the the platitudes, however, belong to the wonderful, career-elevating, somewhat miraculous performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Gordon-Levitt plays Adam Lerner, a 27-year-old good boy who gets diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer.  The film first plays off as a slightly raunchy, good-natured five stages of grief play as Adam is first struck by a sort of numbness that masks his real emotions.  He plays supportive nice guy with his selfish longtime girlfriend  Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and youngster therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick), insisting his calm demeanor is not an act.  Rachael is clearly uncomfortable, and in the wobblier parts of the first their relationship derails, even though Adam, with his puppy faced act, insisted she didn't stay in the first place.  Kyle, a frat-boy Rogen type uses his terminal disease to pick up chicks, while offering sympathetic insights such as the numerous celebrities who have beaten cancer.  It's with Katie, that a real genuine sort of reaction takes place as Adam slightly unbuckles his own fears of a disease that might take his young life away, where the film starts to shed it's shaggy crowd-pleasing ways and starts to form as a film of substance.  Kendrick, for her part, is thoughtful and receptive in a nice contrast to her breakthrough role in Up in the Air two years ago.  And Rogen, though still Seth Rogen is at his best-- in relatively small doses.  But this is a one-man show, and Gordon-Levitt, with ample charm, and grown-up dignity, seems fully aware of that.

The film chronicles his struggles, the bouts of chemo, the funny head-shaving scene that's sadly already been ruined by its trailer and poster, as well as his fondness for medical marijiana.  There's a disarmingly charming sequence after his first experience where Adam walks down the hospital corridors, stoned as can be, and a happy grin on his faces while watching life at its most grim.  It's a silly, sensitive, and slightly poetic little montage that features the niftiest bit of visual flow and captures a nice sense of, at the very least, what the film is trying to capture.  A humorous take on something sad and terrible.  It's also after this sequence that 50/50 starts to form its groove, as Adam dumps the dreadful Rachael (who is given too much screen time to begin with) and come closer to harsher, sadder realizations that his situation brings.  There's added complications as Adam also has his nagging mother (Angelica Huston) to tend with, herself overburdened with the struggle of having to take care of Adam's Alzheimer-plagued father.  To the credit of Reiser and Levine, this is never overplayed, but a reminder of the cloying-feel good tug fest that it really could have been...Terms of Endearment is name checked.  And Huston is wonderful is one-note role, shading bits of history and sadness while naturally projecting motherly concern.  Again, though it's Gordon-Levitt's movie.

For what sells the film as not just a serviceable cancer lark, or sentimental story of a man battling something raw and sad is the quick-witted and subtle flow and dimension of its leading actor.  For when the film delves itself into more dramatic, pricklier territory, Gordon-Levitt with what appears to have been an incandescent ease and utmost control, passionately and abruptly breaks down.  What could have read as a melodramatic fit, plays real and utterly raw, as does his cute-awkward little connection with Katie, which surely must have read a bit faintly, but due to Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick's nice and natural rapport feels earned rather than manipulated.  Yet there are moments of reality-based terror of a man coming to terms with the concept he might die young, or a fragile adult bracing his scared mother that can likely never be scripted properly, they must be felt.  And it's in small, but graceful, little nods that 50/50 latches onto, for the sake of audiences tears, but hardly in cynical way, that makes the film a success.  And that of an performer who holds firm control over a movie, perhaps in such a unique and charismatic way for the first time, and breathlessly envision grander plans for the future.  For even the shaggier, shakier bits of 50/50, we never lose focus of Adam.

And if this film is perhaps entirely a success only due to the great performance that grounds and centers it, than there are far worse reasons to dish out obscene amounts of money on a movie.  B

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