One of the best ways to separate useful comedy from foolishness is by the weight of the subject matter. The more serious and dire a topic is, the better the jokes are. Call it a form of catharsis, call it displacement, but the axiom still stands: If it’s inappropriate to poke fun at, then chances are it’s perfect comedic fodder. John Levine’s new movie, 50/50, is exactly what it purports to be; a movie about a guy who’s too young to be diagnosed with cancer and the friends who help him through his dark, uncertain times. But the film doesn’t fall back on sentimentality, or even gross, over-the-top humor. Rather 50/50, like its title implies, lies somewhere between the bleakness of death and the mundaneness of life (or at least the short-sightedness and live-forever mentality of youth). It maintains an amiable balance of smart (stoner?) humor and emotional gravity.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Adam, a twenty-seven-year-old every-dude working at Seattle Public Radio, already casting the character as the hip and creative man-child whose maturity is about to be tested. Adam half-lives with his artist girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), and is the type of guy who never learned how to drive. He’s simple enough. He exercises, doesn’t drink or smoke, and works hard, so it comes as a surprise when he’s diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. From here on out his life starts to unravel.
Rachel, having expressed her commitment to assist him through the ordeal, becomes increasingly unreliable. She refuses to accompany Adam to his chemo treatments because she doesn’t want to mix the energies; she doesn’t like hospitals (but who does?). She shows up late to pick him up from the treatments and flakes on dinner dates. It becomes clear that she isn’t going to be around for long.
On top of that, Adam’s overbearing mother (Angelica Huston) means well, but with a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s, her plate is already full. So when it comes to emotional support, Adam finds help in the most unlikely places: his pot smoking, booze hound of a best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogan), and his therapist, Katie (Anna Kendricks), who’s just a little wet behind the ears.
Kendricks’s character is well developed. The cleanliness of her car - filled with empty bottles and fast food wrappers - and the way she “tries out” therapeutic techniques, such as physical contact - placing a hand on Adam’s arm - all bely a person whose life is in a state of chaos, which contrasts nicely with Adam’s clean-freak, health obsessed existence. But in truth, this movie is a vehicle for Seth Rogen. You’d be lying to yourself if you didn’t admit Rogen was the primary reason for seeing 50/50.
Seth Rogen is playing a characterized version of himself, actually, which may be why. The movie’s writer, Will Reiser, based the script off of his own experiences. When Reiser was in his mid-twenties he was diagnosed with cancer, and his friend, Seth Rogen the actor, helped him through the difficult times. This gives the role extra significance. When you see Rogen changing Adam’s surgical bandages you can be sure the scene is drawn from real-life. But what’s interesting to watch is Rogen playing Rogen. His character is brash, sure, just as much as any other of his roles. But his sarcastic, yeah-dude manner seems toned down a bit and yet highlighted in subtle and intriguing ways.
When Rogen first learns of Adams cancer, he feigns sickness. “I’m gonna vomit,” he says, “I’m gonna vomit,” illustrating nicely Rogen’s trademark disarming honesty and crude but heartfelt sense of humor. Rogen’s Kyle is the friend everyone needs. The friend who tells it like it is, and, sure, he may screw things up or get it all wrong, but he means well and somehow everything turns out ok in the end. It's refreshing to see an actor playing a role that reflects on their true personality. Especially when that role is so endearing. Seth Rogen may give his finest career performance to date here, or at least the most courageous.
Of course, we don’t mean to draw attention away from Joseph Gordon Levitt. He plays a good straight-laced guy, so it’s convincing when Adam gets his prognosis and the audience feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. We really share the sense of helplessness Adam deals with and his terrifying loss of control. Levitt does a fine job of building internal tension within his character, as well. At first, Adam is cool-headed, almost resigned to his fate, but as the walls begin to close around him and the inevitable starts to sink in, Adam cracks. The result is a shockingly candid, and surprisingly raw breakdown in Kyle’s Jeep. It’s here that Levitt displays more intimacy with his character than the audience may have assumed. Plus, the scene before Adam goes into surgery, where he finally expresses his fear of dying, is enough to make even the hardened soul tear up.
But 50/50 is not the type of movie specifically meant to be a tearjerker, an emotional rollercoaster, or even a raucous comedy. There’s no slapstick humor or cheap appeals to pathos. It may be, however, that 50/50 is the evolution of bro-mance movies, but lets not be too quick to jump on any cultural bandwagon. What is for sure is this: 50/50 is an honest, life-affirming movie that doesn’t buy into tired conventions. It’s a thoughtful, extremely funny, rumination on friendship, family love, mortality, youth, and ultimately that whole, unavoidable human condition thing.
Danielle Panabaker's Top Pop Picks
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