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.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 25, 2009)

25 12 2009

As you are hopefully enjoying Christmas day with your family, watch the “F.I.L.M.” of the week, Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” and be thankful that you are not like this family.  Distant and dysfunctional, the movie follows three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) on a spiritual journey across India.  However, the trip becomes about more than religion; it brings to the surface many feelings of dissent simmering between the brothers. But this isn’t an unnerving family drama.  It is a Wes Anderson movie, and he manages to delve into our deepest feelings using humor and panache.  “The Darjeeling Limited” is easily his most uproarious and poignant.

Anderson’s characters are always a little quirky and off-beat, but here they are much less bizarre than his other movies (such as “The Royal Tenenbaums”) and hence more relatable.  Each brother is stricken by some sort of painful feeling.  The eldest, Francis (Wilson), has been in a terrible motorcycle accident, forcing him to don an arsenal of bandages.  The middle, Peter (Brody) is still struggling to get over his grief from the death of his father.  The youngest, Jack (Schwartzman), is reeling from a break-up with his girlfriend, obsessively listening to messages left by her.  After a year separated from each other, they unite at Francis’ request on a train called the Darjeeling Limited that runs through India.  He hopes that some sort of grand spiritual experience will unite them again, but factionalism begins to develop among the brothers.  Francis and Jack are angry that Peter can’t seem to let go of his father; Francis and Peter are reviled by Jack’s pathetic handling of his break-up; Peter and Jack are constantly questioning the true motives of Francis and the trip.  Ultimately, it is really the lingering agony at their father’s death and their disgust with the absence and neglect of their mother (Anjelica Huston) that brings them back together.

“The Darjeeling Limited” stands out from Anderson’s other movies not only because it is notably funnier, but also because it is a story told with a great deal of compassion and introspection.  In less than 90 minutes, Anderson unravels the three main characters completely, getting to the core of what brings families together and tear them apart.  The movie’s success is not a solely a triumph of Anderson’s direction and writing (technically speaking, the script was a collaboration with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola).  Its success is due largely in part to the three leading men, constantly adjusting their emotions to fit the overall tone of the movie.  These incredibly aware performances are at times comical, at others somber, and often both.  Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman are completely believable as brothers, and they are the perfect people to lead us on Anderson’s journey.