Friday, October 7

50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

As I walked out of 50/50, I was struck by the realization that it didn't get funny until the protagonist got cancer. If nothing else, that speaks to the unorthodox nature of the film. No matter, young Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets cancer after only a few minutes of awkward establishment. 50/50 is your usual Apatow-style funny/sentimental movie but with cancer, to which some might reply, "Remember Funny People?" This is different. Where Funny People used the threat of an illness to prompt a reevaluation of life and career. But Adam Lerner is not George Simmons. He's too young to have a life to reevaluate. He's still building the career he can look back on later. As Adam says during a breakdown late in the film, he's never even told a girl he loved her.

That flecks 50/50 with an affecting quality I'm not sure is fair but cannot deny hit me hard, especially in its last 40 minutes. Based on screenwriter Will Reiser's own bout with cancer at 24, the film clearly displays the guidance of someone who actually lived this life rather than looking for some easy quirks. That is not to say that the film doesn't suffer from some questionable touches, but at least it takes its subject seriously, even when it's milking cancer for laughs.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, an inspired casting choice that makes instant and thorough use of the actor's gangly physique and boyish but sharp face. He's so thin and spry as to be the last person you'd expect to get sick, but when he gets the diagnosis of a rare, genetic form of cancer from a persistent backache, Gordon-Levitt's frame suddenly looks horribly suited to the harsh regimen of chemotherapy. Jonathan Levine's camera often remains tight on the actor's face throughout the film, everything around him woozy from his delirious despair, and the young man's face grows sallow and sunken over the course of 99 minutes while remaining uncomfortably young, like Sleeping Beauty preserved in youth but hanging near death.

Helping Adam cope with the news is his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), who sees cancer as the ultimate weapon in scoring chicks and pushes Adam to get laid to the point of myopia. Rogen plays his usual, ingratiating but well-meaning quip-machine to the hilt here. He can barely contain his glee when he catches Adam's stuck-up girlfriend cheating, and he openly uses his friend's serious ailment to get dates. But if Gordon-Levitt uses his youthful looks to grimly ironic effect, so too does Rogen undermine his own image. Beneath his almost stupefying disregard for his friend's health lies the suggestion that his self-centered attempts to show his friend a good time is nothing but a front for how desperately he wants to avoid thinking about losing who may be the only person who talks to him.

Kyle is just one of a cast of characters Adam must look to for guidance and grounding, and 50/50 plays much of its emotional weight on its supporting cast. Anna Kendrick plays an implausible psychologist-in-training whose blatant lack of professionalism in handling Adam hits the brick wall of that huge, blinding smile, making up for a complete lack of believability with something better: presence. Even less convincing, and without the offsetting humanity, is Bryce Dallas Howard, as ever playing one awful note. As Adam's girlfriend Rachael, she is self-absorbed and selfish to the point of cartoonish bitchiness, so utterly unlikable that we hope she leaves when Adam gives her the chance to walk away when he learns the diagnosis. The film denies Rachael the possibility of being an actual human being, thus avoiding the pathos and depth of a decent human being forced with the difficult choice of having to care for someone you might not know that well. Rachael wants to stay even after being thrown out, but she's given no reason for this and thus only seems more of a stereotype, clinging to Adam just to feel like a good person.

But no one compares to Anjelica Huston, who plays Adam's mother. Huston has to defend her sanity on two fronts, on one side caring for her Alzheimer's-stricken husband as he loses total grip on reality and trying to connect with a reserved Adam on the other. Huston gets the most organically funny lines of the film, and her constant fidgeting and fussing carries a deep pain that tinges even the silliest moments of her overbearing nature. Huston excels at playing matrons who place their reputations and power dynamics over warm connections with their children, but the flashes of pure panic and anguish playing out over her hollowly made-up face tear that Stoic matriarch image to shreds. Diane has nowhere to turn, and Huston perfectly captures the feeling of a woman terrified of losing everything but forced to keep it together for the sake of others. It's a career highlight for Huston, and a performance equaled by few this year.

Admittedly, 50/50 is spotty. Too much of its humor between Adam and Kyle feels standard, and both of Adam's romantic interests don't have enough three-dimensional strength to be much more than contrasts for each other at polar ends of stereotypical females in film. I was also unsure about the use of Alzheimer's as a further emotional punch, though I understood the point of including that sideplot long before Kendrick literally spoke it aloud.* But I loved the gallows humor of Adam's chemo sessions with two older patients played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, who playfully tease the kid with grim predictions to mess with him. And while the tonal shift of the final act gives way to almost total despair, Gordon-Levitt's harrowing descent into pure terror and his breakthroughs with friends and family make for some honest tear-jerking. Gordon-Levitt is so affecting, so raw, that he retroactively makes up for many of my earlier quibbles, and I couldn't get 50/50 out of my head for hours after I saw it.

*Having said that, Serge Houde's performance is one of the few horribly believable portrayals of Alzheimer's I've seen lately. The look of spaced-out absence and perennial curiosity he knows not to try to satiate because he'll just forget it is all too real for me and my experiences with my grandfather. When Adam tells his father he loves him late in the film, Houde's uncomprehending face and gentle but neutral one-word response was so familiar I burst into tears.