Friday, October 14, 2011

50/50 - Theatrical Review


Release Date: September 30, 2011

Comedy and drama is a hard combination to mix in together. While it often times seems effortless when done well (As Good As It Gets & just about any Coens brothers film) it takes a skilled filmmaker to know how to balance the comedy and drama aspects with each other or they risk having too little or too much of either. 50/50 is that rare film where it not only tackles an impossibly grim subject, but it finds a way to make you laugh and cry without it ever feeling cheap or manipulative.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 12 Downtown Disney
Time: 2:25pm October 2, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 39 min
Studio: Summit Entertainment

Loves: Joseph Gordon Levitt, comedy/dramas (done well)
Likes: Seth Rogen, inspirational stories
Neutral: Being emotionally manipulated
Hates: Being reminded of my own personal family tragedies
Horrible: Witnessing and being helpless when a loved one is battling a deadly disease

This movie kind of snuck up on me. I had seen the poster but never really gave it much notice. Knowing that Seth Rogen was in it implied to me that it was a comedy so I sort of wrote it off as such. Then I actually saw the trailer and realized it was much more than a typical comedy, it was dealing with cancer. Now I don't know about you but using such a taboo subject as cancer as the backbone to a film requires a bit of finesse. So forget about getting all the particulars about the disease right and how it effects the person that has it as well as their friends and family because injecting humor into the proceedings is a much more delicate matter. I had faith though but not in Seth Rogen (whom I think is one of the funniest, if one note, guys out there) or first time feature film director Jonathon Levine (whom I had never heard of before this). I had faith in Joseph Gordon Levitt. The fact that he is just a fantastic actor aside he generally doesn't pick bad films to be in (G.I Joe was good...kind of...right?).

Based off the incredible true life events of the film's writer Will Reiser, we follow Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who soon learns after leading the healthiest life he can by running every day, eating right and generally being a good person (he recycles for goodness sake!) that at the ripe age of 27 he has contracted a very rare form of cancer that has attached itself to his spinal column. Once the shock wears off (does it ever though?) he tries to deal with this new life altering ailment the best he can. He has help though, his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is there for emotional support, his quasi-live-in girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is there to take care of him day to day, his very young and inexperienced therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) is there to cater to his mental state and finally there is his worrisome mother Diane (Angelica Houston) who tries to be helpful but usually ends up smothering him. Most of all though this is Adam's story and everyone else is their to support him as he prepares to battle for his life while also coming to terms with the fact that despite having a 50/50 chance of survival he may not have long to live.

Adam prepares to enter a new point in his life.

That doesn't sound like the makings of a very funny or amusing movie does it? Actually that is some pretty grim shit. Having lived through two very close family members whom battled cancer (and lost) I had some personal baggage on board when I sat down in that movie theater. I am usually a very open guy when it comes to films taking on controversial subjects but I will be honest here, this was the first one that really got to me. The biggest issue for me going in was how the movie would feel, was it going to be too much comedy, maybe too much drama. The tone for a movie like this is essential in that it hits the right notes at the right time. There is a constant struggle to deliver the goods on both ends but to also appear as though none of it is forced. Too much comedy and you run the risk of not taking the illness seriously enough and if you take the drama too far then anyone that came for a comedy will see the film as a total downer.

Luckily none of that was an issue. The film bounces back and forth between the two with ease and unless you are looking for it you will most likely not even notice any of the tonal shifts. I might be making too much of an issue out of this but honestly I believe that it was the balance struck with those conflicting emotions that was key to the films success for me. As often as I found myself getting caught up in the reality of Adam's situation and getting emotionally wrapped up in it I was always given a much needed break from the dread associated with his disease with some of the funniest moments in any film this year. Honestly, I was constantly surprised at just how damn funny this movie was and an even more shocking revelation was that none of the jokes were at he expense of the illness Adam has.

Adam finds some unexpected strength from his new found friends.

When we first meet Adam he is a fairly unremarkable guy but someone we can tell has led a generous life up to that point. He doesn't do drugs or eat unhealthy foods, he is somewhat of a boring guy from what I could tell (much like myself actually). But when he finds out he has cancer he goes through a series of changes that in a lesser actor's hands could have easily derailed the entire film. There is the denial stage, then the acceptance stage, then the rebellious stage and finally the give up on life stage while also dealing with the physical detractors of the chemotherapy he is undergoing. Through all that Adam must also deal with his overbearing mother, a father stricken with Alzheimer's, a girlfriend who is conflicted about her feelings towards him, a therapist who he starts to grow an attraction towards and a friend who seemingly has his best interests at hand but doesn't always make it appear that way. The way Levitt juggles all that is a marvel to behold, the way he convincingly downplays his situation and tries to act normal is extremely heartbreaking to watch. Adam is the heart and soul of this film and Levitt carries the entire film on his shoulders with a sense of grace and charm that will make you smile despite his situation.

He is just one side of the coin though. The pairing of Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen was an ingenious move by the filmmakers because they both represent each end of the spectrum, with Levitt the more level headed guy and Rogen the unsurprisingly goofy one. Levitt has got the everyman role patterned to perfection. I had no problem relating to Adam's problems even though I could never truly imagine what he was going through. Levitt just generates such a likable charisma when he is on screen that you just want to reach out and give the guy a hug when he is feeling down or give him a high five when he is happy. He also had the more difficult role to play due to the series of changes that Adam goes through over the course of the film.

It is easy to hate Rachael but it is hard not to understand her.

Most of the film's humor comes from Seth Rogen though which should come as no surprise for anyone familiar with his work. While he has done a fair share of dramatic performances in the past he has never really blown me away as an actor. He has always been a reliable comedian who could do some dramatic moments but I never found myself ever really taking the guy very seriously...until now. The argument can be made that he isn't really doing anything different here but I just found him to be completely believable in this role as Adam's best friend. I think it was a mixture of a lot of different elements, the fact that he is the friend of the guy the film is based on, the writing and letting him be more in the background as opposed to being in your face. When he gets his chance to shine though he shines brightly.

The rest of the cast all brought their A-game as well. Bryce Dallas Howard is showing up in a lot of films these days and is proving to be a very underrated actress. Between The Help and now this she is quickly becoming the go to woman for playing the bitch that everyone loves to hate. That may be underselling her role in this though a bit though cause her character is put in probably the most difficult position out of everyone in Adam's life when the news comes in about his situation. Not to knock what she did with the role but out of every character in the film I actually found hers to be the most compelling simply due to the question of what would you do in that situation? It is really easy to hate her for her actions but if you take the time to think about it she really had no good way of handling her predicament given her options at the time. There is still no condoning her behavior but it is much more than a clear cut case of someone thinking of themselves first which I think just added so much more depth to Adam's story than I was expecting.

Katherine slowly becomes much more than just a therapist to Adam.

The wild card for me though was probably Anna Kendrick as Adam's would be therapist/girlfriend, both the actress and the character. Can you think of one of the more convoluted romantic subplots other than a doctor who falls for her patient or a patient who falls for their doctor? Once again though the film proved me wrong with any assumptions I had towards the two characters and their inevitable attraction to each other. A lot of the praise must go to Levitt and Kendrick who just seemed like they were such a perfect fit for one another. I am only familiar with Kendrick from the 2009 film Up In The Air which was a decent enough film where I thought she was one of the more redeeming factors to that movie. Here she is in full on quirk mode as she stumbles about and tries to figure out how to do her new job while also fighting back her growing feelings for Adam. Despite my reservations towards such a blatant attempt at creating some romantic tension in Adam's life I found their scenes together a constant delight in a film filled with delightful moments.

To compliment this very youthful cast of actors there were actually a good amount of veteran actors to be found here as well. Angelica Houston is an actress I haven't seen in quite some time and her presence was a welcome addition. I also loved that she was playing against type and instead of being the cold hearted bitch she usually is she got to play a woman who was being faced with the possibility of losing both men in her life which she played beautifully. Then you have the two older gentlemen that Adam meets during his chemo sessions played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer. Both actors added a lot of humanity to roles that were nothing more than mere walk on parts in the grand scheme of things. The more Adam got to know them the more I got to like them.

What would you do if you were in Adam's shoes?

Lastly I would like to talk about the ending to film for just a bit. Now don't worry, I am not going to spoil anything but there are a few things I need to talk about before I am done here. First of all I would like to warn everyone that although the first half of the film is fairly lighthearted with its approach to the material it does take a very serious shift near the end that caught me off guard to be frank. I knew what the stakes were for Adam but it still didn't stop me from tearing up when he started to lose it. It is a hard thing to see anyone put through an ordeal like this and when you see someone release all their pain and frustration that had been building up it can be emotionally draining. Once again I gotta hand it to Levitt, he had me in the palm of his hand with this performance and if there isn't some kind of nod towards him come awards season then that is a crime. Second is that I was surprised at just how uplifted I felt after watching the film which had nothing really to do with how it ended but more to do with the entire experience itself. I felt emotionally cleansed afterward which just brightened up my day.

The third and final thing I would like to say is that I think this is a movie that everyone needs to see at least once. It won't get too many repeat viewings, mainly due to the amount of effort it takes to keep yourself together, but it is one of those films that you won't soon forget. I have always believed that one of the miracles of film is its ability to make us look at ourselves and reflect on our own lives. This can be seen as both a good and a bad thing but either way that is what a really powerful film can do. That is what 50/50 has done to me, it hasn't so much made me want to change my life but more or less look at myself and be thankful for everything I have from friends, family and my health. If you are looking for an inspirational film that will make you laugh, cry and make you feel better about life in general then you owe it to yourself to...




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