January 27, 2012
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
A favourite at last year’s TIFF, 50/50 went on to great critical acclaim when it was released in North America during the fall. The film also recouped nearly $40 million at the box office, fine results for a $8 million American “indie.”
The genres and themes
Cancer-comedy? A new genre! Also a “rise to maturity” film, since the lead character should be past the “coming of age” stage in his life.
The premise or plot
Radio journalist Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had a good job, a very funny best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen) and a hot girl friend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). True, he has an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston), a dad suffering from Alzheimer’s and Kyle can’t stand Rachael. So, things aren’t perfect but Adam is cool with all of it until one day his doctor tells him that he has spinal cancer and must undergo chemotherapy and then surgery.
Looking up his disease on the Internet, Adam finds out his true prognosis. The odds are 50/50 whether he’ll live or die.
What follows is rather exceptional. Adam’s new life as a cancer patient is chronicled in a matter-of-fact manner that allows for much humour to emerge despite the pathos of his situation. Kyle acts as many a best buddy might do: he hustles great looking young women by telling them stories about what a wonderful friend he is to his pal, who has cancer. Rachael, a flighty art student, does her best to cope with Adam’s condition but, in the end, betrays him. One of the cruelest and funniest scenes in the film is when she tries to come back to him and he whispers that she should take her books and leave his porch.
It’s the whispering that makes the telling off scene work; Adam doesn’t indulge in histrionics for the longest time. He even learns to cope with his over protective mother thanks to his psychologist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is such a neophyte at her job that Adam seems to take her advice more out of sympathy for her situation than his own.
The plot leads up to a big denouement—an operation. Of course. As a reviewer, I can’t tell you what happens but I can reveal that the premise is autobiographical—and by 50/50’s scriptwriter Will Reiser.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Adam garnered a Golden Glove nomination but not a win. That’s about right: he’s charming and laid-back but he never really nails the character. More of a character actor than a lead, one wonders what would have happened if James McAvoy had stayed with the production of this film instead of leaving to witness the birth of his baby. McAvoy and Gordon-Levitt are quite similar as actors but I suspect that the producers’ original choice was the right one.
Seth Rogen is playing himself; in real life, he is scriptwriter Will Reiser’s best friend. Not surprisingly, he’s funny and rude as “Adam’s” over-bearing but genial buddy.
Anna Kendrick is wonderfully awkward and sincere as Katherine, the very young psychologist. She’s given lots of great lines, my favourite being when she brings dinner over to Adam. Kyle can’t help intruding, offering advice on what Katherine should do to help Adam while he’s away. Taking full measure of the man, she says, “are there TV channels he shouldn’t watch?”
Bryce Dallas Howard is emerging as a great character actress. Over the last year, she was tremendously affecting as the over-compensating cooking partner for Matt Damon in Everafter and in her Oscar nominated role in The Help, she is absolute scene-stealer as a racist Southern belle in the ‘60s American South. Fearless in her choice of roles, Howard etches Rachael in indelible ink: you see her weaknesses—her flirtatiousness and neuroses—but beneath that, a wounded character who needs to be protected.
Fine comedy directing is rarely obvious because ideally everything should flow and look natural; nothing “artistic” should be visible to the audience. Jonathan Levine has elicited fine performances from his cast and makes sure that the camera is in the right place for the best lines in the script to be relished by the performers and the audience. I suspect that he is going places as a director; surely, this film is very well directed.
If you missed 50/50 in the theatres—and I did, during a very busy fall—this is your chance to pick it up on DVD. Filled with fine young actors and based on a quirky but real-life story, this is a film that should work for the 20 to 40 year old crowd—and many older folks, too.