REVIEW: 50/50

29 09 2011

The cinema of cancer is a curious thing.  The disease is usually a tack-on to the end of a movie, merely a plot device meant to make the audience appreciate the fragility and fleeting nature of life.  When the film is centered around it, the pathos is meant to unlock our most tucked-away, maudlin sentiments.

Cancer is less of a medical condition on screen than it is a transformative experience.  The victim is less of a human and more of a fighter or soldier, the underdog forced to do battle for their life.  Having known people who have been struck with this horrible disease – some emerging victorious, others not so fortunate – I can attest that they must indeed lace up their boxing gloves and pugnaciously duke it out.  But there’s more to the struggle than chemotherapy and radiation; there’s a desire for a Warren Harding-style return to normalcy as people insist on treating the patient as a different person living in a different world.

This is precisely where “50/50,” Jonathan Levine’s sophomore feature, excels.  Rather than hitting us with a tsunami of sadness, it takes us through all the emotions of living with and through cancer.  From Will Reiser’s moving script comes a story “inspired” (as the lawyers required it be advertised), by real experiences that is rooted in a startlingly authentic humanity.  His protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, is never defined by his unpronounceable cancer; he is defined by his responses to a landscape that shifts much faster than he has anticipated.

The cancer strikes Adam without warning and really without reason.  A 27-year-old working for local public radio in Seattle, an avid runner, a non-smoker – he hasn’t done anything to deserve, per se, this illness.  Yet as the nature of disease is, it often strikes without rhyme or reason, and such appears to be the case with this large tumor growing on his spine.  Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief begins with denial, and Adam’s disbelief turns into an eerie calm while his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and overbearing mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) are all sent reeling and distraught.

But reality sets in quickly as he must adjust to the new normal, which involves grueling days receiving intravenous medications, dealing with the pain, and trying to maintain some sense of equilbrium amidst a society that strips away all semblances of humanity to treat him like a specimen.  To top it all off, the shrink assigned to help him through the taxing times is fresh-faced Katie (Anna Kendrick), just as new to dealing with cancer as Adam himself is.  The two wind up being wonderful complements, both discovering the best way to live through something that horrible is just to live.

And as clichéd as it sounds, “50/50” is of that transcendant category of movies about the human experience.  It takes us through all the messiness that ensues when cancer interferes with our everyday lives with an incredibly even keel.  The movie can switch from heart-wrenching to hilarious to heartening on a dime, largely to due to Reiser’s very personal script but also thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s incredibly powerful performance.  He’s always been phenomenal, be it as a solid background presence in “Inception,” an enigmatic lead in “The Lookout,” or a moody against-type romantic comedy male in the growing cult favorite “(500) Days of Summer.”

Here, however, he’s totally sublime.  Gordon-Levitt is enormously affecting even in the emotional lulls of the film, and when he gets the most powerful moments in the script, he knocks them out of the park.  It’s a lesson in poise and control that many young actors would do well to study.

Flying on the coattails of its fantastic leading man, “50/50” turns a touchy subject into a touching movie.  It’s a truly full moviegoing experience, one that takes us on a journey of feeling.  It may make you treat the next person you know that’s stricken with cancer differently; it may make you view life a little differently.  But whatever that something may be, it’s inevitable that you will take something out of it.  B+ / 

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6 responses

30 09 2011
Everybody’s Talkin’ 9 – 30 (Chatter from Other Bloggers) | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

[…] will be 50/50, which of course stars some guy. Marshall reviewed it, and seems to think it’s pretty sick (sorry – I couldn’t […]

30 09 2011
Andrew

Great review. I really dug this one as well, mostly because of how deftly Levine avoids the potential pratfalls of going too over-the-edge and making 50/50 too cloying. Instead, his cast and narrative read as totally natural and genuine, which I think has a good bit to do with the script drawing from Reiser’s own experiences in life. The film doesn’t manipulate its audience, and instead builds organically toward its emotional moments so as to not force them. (Adam’s final moments with his folks before going under surgery hit me pretty hard, for example, and I think a lot of that has to do with how well that beat is built up to.)

Of course, JGL is amazing, which is a no-brainer, but I think that 50/50 uses Rogen better than anything he’s been in since Knocked Up, and of course Anna Kendrick shows once again how much of a rising star she really is.

2 10 2011
Marshall

I very much agree – I teared up towards the end, especially that scene with Rogen in the car. I wasn’t sure going into the film whether Reiser was the Rogen or JGL character, so my stomach was really churning!

3 10 2011
Duke

Nice to see you back Marshall …

So glad you liked the film, we often disagree.

Just to note on Kendrick … between this and UP IN THE AIR … she’s going places.

Great review.

3 10 2011
Marshall

Oh trust me, between those two movies, I’m convinced that my wife will have to have at least one aspect reminding me of Anna Kendrick.

4 10 2011
3guys1movie

Nice review. I hate myself for thinking I was going to hate this movie. This turned out to be one of the better films I have seen this year.

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