– Summary –
Director : Jonathan Levine
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelica Huston, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall, Andrew Airlie.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: After being diagnosed with a tumor in his spine, a young public radio employee undergoes treatment with the help of his best friend, a young therapist, his mother, and a girlfriend who may or may not be entirely faithful. Cue riotous laughter.
What we think : Humorous, moving, surprisingly sharp, 50/50 is a terrific little film that gets under your skin and tingles you a lot. With a winning performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a restrained (for him) Stifler-esque role for Seth Rogen, this film dares to make you laugh about the single disease which still strikes fear into people everywhere.
Cancer. It’s a barrel of laughs.
It would be a shame if, in years to come, 50/50 was overlooked by many for being “that cancer movie”. Yeah, it’s a film where the central protagonist is diagnosed with cancer, and an especially nasty form of it too, and one of the cast is ubiquitous “funnyman” Seth Rogen, so the cringe factor going into this has potential to be quite high. It should be noted at this juncture (although we’re only two sentences in to this review, so I’d hardly call this a “juncture”) that 50/50 is a surprise package of a film, not only for the sensitivity with which is portrays cancer but in the amount of guffaws the film elicits along the way. Yeah, cancer – it’s hilarious, right? Anyone who’s had cancer touch their lives, and let’s face it, these days that’s just about everyone, will find something to appreciate in this witty, wry drama/comedy from director Jonathan Levine.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for a public radio station along with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). After suffering from back pain for a while, Adam learns he has a malignant tumor growing on his lower spine – cancer – and so must undergo chemotherapy to treat it. As he deals with it, his self-involved artist girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) begins to grow more distant as the “negativity” surrounding his condition affects her, while his mother (Angelica Huston), already dealing with a husband suffering early onset dementia, worries enough for the entire world. Key to Adam’s recovery is the presence of his friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), an abrasive and often uncouth guy who seems to breeze through life sleeping with random women and teasing Adam about being a neat-freak. Kyle attempts to get Adam laid once or twice, using Adam’s cancer as a sympathy card towards the women they meet. Adam, meanwhile, begins to see a therapist to talk about his problems. The therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) is a lot younger than even Adam, and he remains skeptical as to the assistance he’d gain from her, although as they begin to talk they grow ever closer. Adam also meets a pair of fellow cancer patients (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) with whom he shares a laugh and a sympathetic ear.
I’d never have pegged a film about a guy getting cancer as being one of the funniest, most moving film experiences I’ve had in recent times. The idea of following a man as he undergoes treatment for cancer, and how it effects those around him, is not new to audiences these days, since the plague of cancer is widespread even with all the money poured into research. Most of us, even in the smallest ways, have known somebody affected by this horrible, awful disease; my grandmother, a proud farming woman who’d persevered with my dementia-ridden grandfather for the last fifteen years of her life, and who had almost entirely lost her eyesight to glaucoma, left this world riddled with cancer so bad her pores leeched excrement, less than a week after her 85th birthday. Conversely, a friend of my wife had her husband struck down with cancer and die in his late 20’s. Cancer has come to represent a symbol of the fragility of human life, because it does not distinguish age, race or religion – it takes whoever it chooses, and so we’re all potential victims. 50/50 strikes at the heart of that fear because we can all relate to it, even in the smallest way.
The film is sharply written by Will Reiser, who based the story on his own personal experiences (apparently). The dialogue is sharp and modern, the emotion of the journey each character goes on – from patient, friend, mother, partner, even casual acquaintances – are spot on, and the film pulls no punches with the pang of anger most feel when touched by this disease. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Adam, carries the film well, offering a softness to the role which contrasts with co-star Seth Rogen’s more abrasive personality. Adam is a neat-freak, a little bit OCD I think, since at one point he actually cleans the inside of his therapists car because he’s upset at the mess. JoGo has such an expressive manner, such a potent ache of grief inside him, it’s tangible on the screen. His is a raw, terrified, angry, withdrawn performance that crystallizes the way we deal with this kind of situation perfectly. Rogen, as Adams best friend, delivers what can only be described as an outrageously moving performance from a man I normally detest as an actor: his obnoxious, talk-at-all-costs style of acting normally grates, and yet he’s nuanced enough to really let the character shine in this instance, and I applaud him for doing so. Comedy is hard at the best of times, so one can only imagine how hard it would be when the target of that comedy is cancer and death; Rogen is actually pretty decent in this, even if his character is more Stifler-like than one would enjoy in real life. Like most people, he doesn’t quite know how to handle things when Adam’s life goes to crap, so he hides behind humor and “male bonding” type behavior to cover his own emotional inadequacies – inadequacies that come to light towards the end of the film, when Adam must undergo surgery to remove the tumor.
Also among the cast, Bruce Dallas Howard continues making a name for herself as this decade’s screen Bitch Queen, while Anna Kendrick solidifies her career playing yet another character carrying submerged issues and human flaws with class and a restrained dignity. Howard, as Rachel, is a self-serving bitch, and she plays the character to the hilt – she’s believable, if anything, although exactly what Adam ever saw in her in the first place left me somewhat bewildered. Kendrick, who serves as this films romantic interest for Adam as Katherine, is excellent, with her soulful eyes and huge teeth – she has a definite chemistry with Gordon-Levitt, and they spark off each other with an ease I’d have enjoyed more had they spent more time together on screen.
If I was honest, I was a little annoyed that so much of the film was spread across so many characters. I wanted to see more of the Adam/Katherine relationship, and less of the Adam/Rachel relationship breakdown (which it does, and you can see coming a mile away…. my wife picked that up well before I did!), while I did feel that the Angelica Huston character – Adam’s mother – wasn’t given enough development in the script. She came across as a little bit of a loony worry-wart, but not through any direct action, instead we’re given this impression thanks to dialogue from Adam, a not-quite-impartial character anyway. Huston produces a terrific performance with the little material she’s given, imbuing her generic Mother type with a wrenching sadness even with just a glance and a wave of her hand. The film sparks to life when Adam and Kyle are together, and Gordon-Levitt and Rogen work really well together…. even if JoGo becomes lost amongst the occasional overacting from Rogen.
50/50 is a film you’d describe as “brave” and “uplifting” if it was actually either of those two sentiments. It’s not a brave film – the ending is typically Hollywood, if you ask me, and had the filmmakers decided to really screw with the audience…. well, I’ll leave that to your imagination…. Nor is it an uplifting film, in the sense that all comes out rosy at the end. The power of love conquers all? Hardly. This film tends to a realism I think a lot of Hollywood product avoids because it’s too hard. People want to be entertained and leave the cinema feeling glad to be alive, not down in the dumps about how crappy life really is. 50/50 never pretends to be a Hallmark card of a story; this is a film dealing with a reality too many people face on a daily basis, and it tells it well.
50/50 is a very, very good film. It deals with the subject of cancer, and those it affects, with grace and subtle humor that deftly avoids mawkish melancholy or sentimentality, allowing the audience to have a laugh at what remains one of the most evil diseases humanity faces. Rewarding characters, real situations and an emotional payoff will elicit a tear or a lump in the throat from most viewers, so be prepared: 50/50 is a terrific film in almost every regard.
What others are saying about 50/50:
Andy over at A Constant Visual Feast tried not to oversell it: “Writing a review for 50/50 presents something of a challenge to me. On one hand, I want to rave to high heavens about it; on the other, I don’t want to oversell it.”
The Guys over at 3 Guys 1 Movie enjoyed it: “50/50 is probably not going to make a ton of cash in the theaters and it’s too bad because it’s a great film. I say go see it now if only to support this kind of movie being made.”
Ruth over at Flixchatter had this to say: “I was uncertain at first just how could they make cancer funny, but the beauty is in the writing and the way writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine crafted this character-driven dramedy.”
Jess over at Velvet Cafe had a few issues with it: “What did I make of it? Well, admittedly there were elements I didn’t like all that much. Did the girl friend need to be THAT shallow? Did the psychiatrist need to look like a young cheerleader? How believable was that? Did his friend have to be completely obsessed with getting chicks and getting laid? It got a bit tiresome. On the whole I liked it well enough, but it didn’t break into my top 10 list of 2011, which I kind of had expected it to do considering the topic. “
Max at Impassioned Cinema enjoyed it: “While a film about cancer doesn’t sound like the best night out, 50/50 has enough heart to make it well worth the time.”
Stevee at Cinematic Paradox loved it: “Through all of these people, we see just how one person can affect several others, and discover what they’re really like. It’s situations like these that magnify the people around you, and what they’re really like deep down. What these people don’t do, though, is become caricatures with heavy-handed intentions to show exaggerated melodrama.”
Aiden at Cut The Crap thought it was awesome: “Cancer. Always knew it was this emotional, never knew it could be this funny.”
Dan The Man thought it was pretty great as well: “Cancer and comedy may be a hard subject to make watchable, but 50/50 does that perfectly.”
Scott over at Front Room Cinema was entranced by it: “The script is absolutely perfect, the dialogue is snappy and with enough wit to reel you in and get you completely invested in all of the characters. The awkwardness of Adam’s friends and family is shown brilliantly, they have to try to find the right things to say to keep Adam positive, all the time dealing with their own emotions and sadness at their loved ones illness.”
What did you think of 50/50? Have you even seen it, and if not, why not? Let us know in the comments below!!
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