Thursday, February 23, 2012

50/50 Is A Clever, Heartwrenching Comedy About Cancer.

The Good: Moments that are genuinely funny, Moments that have absolutely genuine characters, Acting
The Bad: The character of Katherine really annoyed me
The Basics: Ambitious and worthwhile, 50/50 tells a gripping and often funny story of a young man diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer.

There are very few films that I want to see that I do not manage to get to the theater to watch these days. For the most part, if I want to see it, usually I find a preview screening or, barring that, I pay to see the film as early as I can after its release. Somehow, I managed to miss 50/50 when it came out and now that it is out on DVD, I have just managed to get it in to watch. 50/50 came highly recommended to me and when my wife and I sat down to watch it, we were both a little emotionally guarded. We have both had a lot of loss in our lives from people dying or serious health concerns. So, the idea of a comedy about a cancer patient was one that would either soar or crash with us. Fortunately, 50/50 lived up to its potential and delivered a solidly entertaining film that became one of the best recent surprises we’ve sat down to.

50/50 is loosely based on a true story and Will Reiser manages to write a brilliantly deep – if occasionally predictable – film that captures the difficult realities of end-of-life issues while still making them entertaining. Above all, 50/50 works because it is funny and populated by interesting characters. 50/50 is the comedic version of cancer much the way that Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) made a hard-hitting drama that was unafraid to face issues surrounding death. 50/50 might not make cancer fun, but it illustrates how even a cancer diagnosis cannot stop those determined to enjoy life from actually living. That is an admirable theme and it is well-executed in 50/50.

Adam is excited about his relationship with the eccentric artist Rachael, so much so that he has a drawer for her in his house and that thought pleases her. After a few days of back pain, Adam visits the doctor where he is diagnosed with cancer. Shocked but immediately supportive, his co-worker and friend Kyle rallies around him and tries to keep his spirits up. Adam gives Rachael the chance to bail and is surprised and pleased when she does not take him up on the offer. After an awkward conversation with his mother and after meeting the hospital therapist, Katherine, Adam starts the chemotherapy that should help break down the tumor on his spine.

While Kyle uses Adam’s cancer to score with women, he remains fiercely defensive of his friend. When he catches Rachael cheating on Adam, he calls her out and helps Adam push her away. While Adam works with the painfully awkward Katherine (he is her third patient ever!) to process the feelings he has while going through the chemotherapy, he meets Mitch and Alan who also suffer from cancer and forms a friendship with them as well. Over drinks with Kyle, pot with the older men and therapy sessions with Katherine, Adam oscillates between hope for survival and despair that the odds might be too long to beat.

50/50 works much more often than it does not and the biggest issue I have with the movie is actually in the predictable elements. I’m not talking spoiler-alert ending ruined by all of the interviews I heard with Seth Rogen when 50/50 was released in theaters predictable. No, 50/50 is unfortunately formulaic even when one does not know anything about the real-world events that inspired the film. The most pressing of these predictable elements come in the forms of Katherine and Rachael. Rachael is the archetypal flighty young artist, so the few viewers who might not have seen her bailing on Adam when he first tells her he has cancer should pretty much see it coming a mile away the first moment she mentions “energies.” Her refusal to come into the hospital telegraphs the fact that the Adam and Rachael relationship is not long for the film. No surprise there.

What I saw as an unfortunately predictable element was how 50/50 developed the Katherine and Adam relationship. While the disintegration of Rachael and Adam was obvious and built-in to the characters, the burgeoning relationship between the terribly awkward Katherine and the emotionally fragile Adam was not inevitable. In fact, the more Katherine did unprofessional things like lay her hands on Adam, the more I cringed. And it is supposed to be awkward; it is presented in a very funny way in 50/50. But Katherine starts the movie trying, desperately, to be professional around Adam and because the relationship with Rachael was so doomed from the start, I wanted to see 50/50 defy the expectations and have Katherine fully assert her professionalism and put an end to any potential romance between her and Adam.

Even so, 50/50 is nowhere near a disappointment! Adam is a likable character, even if he is neurotic before he gets cancer. Similarly, Kyle is annoyingly lovable and the real treat of 50/50 is how, despite how self-serving Kyle seems on the surface, he has a clear and deep affection for Adam that is only deepened as Adam goes through his cancer journey.

50/50 rightfully earns a lot of respect for having good actors performing well. While I am on the fence as to whether Anna Kendricks (of Twilight fame) is a phenomenal actress or just cast perfectly for the awkward and somewhat disturbing role of Katherine, the rest of the cast is clearly professional. Anjelica Houston uses her brief time on screen to give a meaningful supporting performance as Adam’s mother, as does Serge Houde as her husband. In fact, Houde gives one of the most subtle and delightful performances as Adam’s Alzheimer’s-plagued father. Bryce Dallas Howard creates yet another delightfully unlikable antagonist as Rachael, but she manages to do it in a completely different way from how she portrayed the snobby socialite in The Help (reviewed here!).

Most of the film hangs upon the solo acting talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his on-screen chemistry with Seth Rogen. Seth Rogen appears in 50/50 as something of a more mellow version of his usual robust and energetic self. He is still eager and enthusiastic, but he does play the part of Kyle with a little more restraint and humanity than he does most of his straightforward comedy roles. Yes, Seth Rogen has all the depth we always suspected he dis and in 50/50, he lets it show.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fully divorced from his early comedic roots in 50/50, reaffirming his role as one of the premiere actors of his generation. He is somber, serious, and only mildly quirky as Adam. The strength of his performance in 50/50 comes from his ability to emote and present lines that are deeply expressive without ever seeming over-the-top. Add to that, he is able to smile using only his eyes at times and when Adam needs to look fatigued, Gordon-Levitt completely sells the moment! His brief interactions with Philip Baker Hall and Matthew Frewer are delightful and his ability helps to solidly sell the premise of the film.

Now out on DVD, 50/50 features a commentary track and three featurettes. The commentary track is very informative and the featurettes are fun, adding additional value to the DVD and Blu-Ray. For those who live in fear of cancer, 50/50 provides a powerful and charming story that will engage viewers for years to come.

For other works with Seth Rogen, check out my reviews of:
The Green Hornet
Monsters Vs. Aliens
Zack And Miri Make A Porno
Pineapple Express
Step Brothers
Donnie Darko
Freaks And Geeks


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for a complete listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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