50/50 – The Review
It’s not an easy finding the humor inherent in even the darkest subjects of human life, carefully trying to extract the essence of that elusive silver lining everyone keeps talking about. Many would say there’s nothing funny about cancer, and I would agree on the most basic level, but when done tastefully and with compassion, humor can not only be found in anything, but can actually be a positive force of healing and inspiration.
No, this isn’t Dr. Phil guest writing my review. This is an effort to describe what I took away from watching Jonathan Levine’s third feature film 50/50. As far as I’m concerned, Levine is now three-for-three, having first won my affection in 2008 with THE WACKNESS, his first feature outing was actually in 2006 with ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE. Unfortunately, Levine’s first feature has still yet to be released, which quite literally makes me angry.
50/50 tells the story of Adam Lerner, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, HESHER), a 27-year old nice guy who suddenly discovers he has a rare form of cancer. The film tackles the subject comically, but doesn’t wash over the seriousness of the situation, maintaining absolute integrity. We follow Adam as he muddles through the painful process of beating cancer. His best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogen (PAUL, FUNNY PEOPLE), sticks by his side through the entire film, providing more than just the comic relief he does so well, but also as his crutch, his cheerleader and wing man.
Angelica Huston (THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS) plays Diane, Adam’s over-protective mother. Adam spends most of the film avoiding his mother, especially once he learns of his condition, relying more on the questionably authentic support of his live-in artist girlfriend Rachel, played with cold ambiguity by Bryce Dallas Howard (HEREAFTER, ECLIPSE). All the while, Adam seems oblivious to the intrinsic nature of Kyle’s friendship, and slowly sinks into self-pity, until he meets Katie, played by Anna Kendrick (NEW MOON, UP IN THE AIR), a support counselor as green to her profession and he is to having cancer. Kendrick is cute and fragile, like that pretty porcelain figurine on your grandmother’s shelf that you’re afraid to tough for fear of breaking.
Primarily a television producer, Will Reiser makes an incredible first impression as a screenwriter with his freshman offering. The characters of 50/50 are rich and detailed, tangible with real human flaws. The humor is perfectly timed, edgy but respectful, with a charm that balances nicely with the emotionally challenging aspects of the script. Reiser paints his characters with gently, relying on the quality of the paint rather than the boldness of his strokes. Levine and the cast must have picked up on this as well, because the whole film works beautifully.
Levine allows the cast of 50/50 to shine, unencumbered by an over-intrusive visual style or disruptive gimmicks, but enhances the performances and the writing with a keen sense of reflective stillness and an ear for great music that harmoniously brings what we see and hear on screen into full maturity. Levine seems to be telepathically synced with the cast, successfully harnessing Rogen’s familiar and goofy, often-stoned style of comedy, but reining it in enough that’s it’s not overbearing and never overshadows Adam. What Levitt has done, is take a topic just recently attempted by FUNNY PEOPLE with moderate success at best, and has succeeded in applying the “less is more” rule.
50/50 takes the audience by the hand and says, this isn’t always going to be an easy journey, but we’re going to make the most of it and have fun. In fact, it’s the perfectly executed ups and downs of Adam’s experience that makes it so damn easy to connect and empathize with him. Levitt evokes the very best of what makes an actor a leading star as well as what makes the best character actors so vividly unique and memorable, doing so in a way that seems almost effortless. One of the tiniest, but most significant ways he has done this with 50/50 is in how affects his own appearance, his pale complexion, his red and tired eyes, his posture, all small but important ingredients in selling such a difficult role.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been on my radar of fine actors for a long time, but 50/50 just further proves what a fascinating actor and craftsman remains to be seen. Not only has he managed to continue redefining his own range as an actor with this role, but does so convincingly that I never once found myself questioning whether he had on some level had some experience with what a cancer patient must feel.
Philip Baker Hall (MAGNOLIA) and Matt Frewer (WATCHMEN) provide small but strong performances as two older cancer patients who share chemotherapy sessions with Adam. Hall and Frewer supply an additional layer of humor, but also indirectly serve as mentoring guides in Adam’s journey.
50/50 is a film that will make you laugh, it may even make you cry, but should ultimately make you care. 50/50 is one of those rare films that reads like real life, not all good, not all bad, but almost always somewhere in between, which is where the most interesting and honest stories reside.