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Monday, October 3, 2011

50/50 (Release Date: 9-30-2011)

        If there's One thing that Hollywood loves, it's to severely aggrandize a true story. It happens about Twenty times a year, at least a couple of these yarns making it all the way to the Kodak Theater on Oscar night. By this standard, the new cancer comedy 50/50 is clearly going against the grain. The semi-autobiographical takes the real-life story of 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, standing in for writer/cancer survivor Will Reiser) and turns it into a laugher, a bold play if ever there was One, and quite the send up to the notion that bigger, more serious drama always creates a better film. Scaled against other man vrs. illness tales that have come out over the years, 50/50 is a knowingly small effort, and that sense of reduced scale renders it unlike any picture I've seen for quite some time.

        Working in Seattle as a writer for NPR, Adam's healthy, cleanly, nice-guy existence is suddenly flipped on its side by the discovery of a tumor in his lower spine. Adam has Three major players to help him in his time of crisis: His shaky artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston), and Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen (Rogen and Reiser were actually close friends at the time, not that Rogen was likely to stretch too far out of his comfort zone anyways). The women in his life, a group that comes to include a painfully inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick), try to help him in a variety of ways, but it's Rogen's Kyle, as well as a pair of fellow Chemo patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer), who prove most apt at helping him. Their miracle cure? Treating him normally, and trying to inject as much humor into daily life as possible.

        Somewhat miraculously, 50/50 actually works really well as a comedy. Admittedly, I am a total sucker for Rogen's schtick, but even if you're among the many who have grown tired of his bawdy presence, clever writing and inspired set-ups are littered through out the film. They weave in and out, balancing with the movie's decidedly more morose moments, the tonal juxtaposition prompting many a side-splitting surprise. Given his success with humor, it's disappointing that Reiser has trouble crafting characters in three-dimentions, especially where his females are concerned. Howard, Huston, and Kendrick all shine in their own ways, director Jonathan Levine coaxing good to great performances out of everyone on board, but the nagging feeling that you've seen these exact characters in a million movies before this One is unavoidable.

        There are a few other issues I could raise with the movie, it bumping into cliches on the way to its climactic trip to the operating room, but Gordon-Levitt's pitch-perfect performance outweighs them all Ten times over. Behind his ever-winning smile is a pain that increases and evolves as the film moves along, his outbursts of mortal frustration somehow never alienating him from the audience. Gordon-Levitt's big draw has always been the fact that he's simply a charming presence, and 50/50 knows just how to use that invaluable asset, drawing you in and increasing your sympathies through humor as a means of turning the viewer into a kleenex killer in the film's final third. The movie is a smorgasbord of emotion, taking you through genuine and pure bouts of love, hate, dread, comedy, drama, and every other buzz word you can think of, and its all thanks to Gordon-Levitt's career-topping performance. As previously stated, I still have a few hang-ups about 50/50, but none of them prevented me from being completely engaged the entire time, the film's emotional roller-coaster never once losing me. Gordon-Levitt deserves an Oscar nomination, and this movie deserves your attention.

Garde: A-


  1. Is it me, or is Anna Kendrick a total fox?

  2. Collin,

    First, I would like to say how beautifully ornate and characteristically stylish your writing is. I am exceedingly impressed by the maturation of your eloquence and vocabulary, and I sincerely hope you never stop writing.

    However (the great conjunction), now that I have you properly lubricated, it is time we spar. There are a couple of points I would like to address with you, but first and foremost, the comment that spurred my defensive passion was your assertion that Reiser “had trouble crafting characters in the three-dimensions.” I would also like to turn your point against you regarding how Gordon-Levitt’s “bursts of mortal frustration” did not surprisingly isolate his character from the audience, because I couldn’t disagree more.

    I found Adam’s character to be extremely dynamic, but climactically so. What I mean by that is up until his ferocious lament when he exiles Rogen from the car, I would have agreed that his character was a bit static. But at that beautiful moment, Adam’s humanity explodes and is released from the cage in which he has been keeping it tightly locked. Instead of what you think was simply not a surprising isolation, I felt was an obvious connection with the audience. It’s extremely difficult to watch him swallow this burden so courageously, hardly reaching out to anyone, no expressions of pain or fear. Suddenly, the carefully crafted wall melts, and he is left vulnerable and in anguish.

    Going back to our beloved Shakespeare class, I would like to suggest that the more superficial characters were foils for exposing the protagonist. In order to achieve the dynamism that I felt Adam had, and to connect with him the most fully, it is more effective to darken the personalities of his counterparts to reflect his vivacity. Could you have a bunch of strong personalities and still resonate with the protagonist? Of course. And perhaps that is where the movie may fall just a bit short. But only a BIT. I will agree with you, however, that the female characters in the film were decidedly weak and less awesome than the males, which yes, is a rather disappointing feature.

    Finally, I would like to request some evidence regarding the alleged clichés in the film. I can hardly think of a bigger cliché hater than myself, and there was absolutely nothing in the film that struck me as being cliché. But it may be that I was so engrossed by the extraordinary honesty of the film that I didn’t notice the more prosaic aspects.

    To completely my critique of your critique, I would like to quote a phrase of yours that I thought particularly well constructed. “They weave in and out, balancing with the movie's decidedly more morose moments, the tonal juxtaposition prompting many a side-splitting surprise.” I thought this sentence was fantastic, as it couldn’t be more accurate.

  3. Well, thank you for such a lengthy and detailed response. Obviously, talking film (and music) is what this site is all about, so let's get to it!

    I think the sentence about Gordon-Levitt's isolation might have just been poor writing on my part. All that I am meaning to say is, were it another actor, I would imagine that the audience would tire of spending so much time with such a sad character. I agree with you that his character arch is pretty much perfect, and that his stoic demeanor makes his outburst all the more telling/heart-wrenching. I'm just saying that if we had, say... (actual thinking time) even somebody like Paul Dano in the part, I think the audience would grow tired of his occasional snafus and outbursts. He can get ugly whilst maintaining grace, which is a rare quality in an actor.

    Interesting point about flat supporting players making him seem more rounded. Not sure I'm there with you, but it is certainly something that I haven't thought of, and will consider if I see it again.

    Therapist-patient forbidden love drama
    Cold and unfeeling medical staff
    Group of wise old guys who give fatherly advise with an edge
    Montage after montage after montage
    The, 'what now?' ending
    The cold and sterile first girlfriend who's dropped by mid-movie

    That's all I can come up with for now, but I think that's a handful. Either way, the thing about 50/50 is that whatever reservations you have about it, it's emotional power is pretty much undeniable, and coming from a comedy, that's saying something. It can sometimes be a bummer writing reviews because you can't help but seek out the negatives, but they are seriously, seriously over-powered by the positives in this case. Thanks again for giving me such a response. Hopefully we'll see something great (Like Attack the Block) together soon.