Monday, May 14, 2012


Do a Google search for "movies about cancer."  Go on, I dare you.  You will find page after page of lists for the "best" cancer movies; if you click on any of those links, though, you'll find collections of overly sentimental tripe.  I'll admit, that makes sense.  Cancer is obviously terrible and tragic and seemingly random; it's not like someone's going to make a film called "Cancer is for Assholes" or "Melanoma Wins Again."  Well, they won't make a successful film with those premises, anyway.  But cancer-themed films tend to be sappy and manipulative, not feel-good entertainment.  In other words, not very many people are going to grab some pizza and some beers and pop in a cancer flick.  50/50 may not be the movie that makes you grab some High Life and Pizza Hut, but it's probably the closest yet.  Is that a good thing?  Well, that's debatable.  How many dick jokes do you want to have in your cancer movie?
Gordon-Levitt, confessing his need for genital humor in cancer movies

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an overly serious radio journalist in his late twenties.  He has a rude goofball for a best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), and a girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is a pretentious professional artist with questionable talent.  When Adam learns that he has a very rare form of cancer (which WebMD claims has a 50% survival rate), his life obviously begins to change.  He thought he was happy before cancer, but the emotional journey quickly takes a toll. 
On the bright side, he gained a nice hat collection
Who can he trust to take care of him?  His overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston)?  His idiot friend, who leverages Adam's illness for sympathy dates?  His embarrassingly inexperienced therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick)?  How about Rachael, whom he hadn't had sex with in months and who now refuses to go into the hospital with him?  Yeah, life-threatening illness can make even an average life seem like a huge bowl of soft-serve crap.  On the other hand, there are unexpected benefits to having cancer, like excellent weed, sympathy sex, and a new perspective on life.  And those are all wonderful things, provided you're on the right side of that 50%.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of 50/50's dramatic weight rests on the shoulders of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Thankfully, his character isn't asked to explicitly go through the stages of grief by the script, so JGL is able to surprise the audience.  
Surprise!  Adam can throw Liu Kang fireballs!
Given the subject matter, it was nice to see a main character that was convincingly and sympathetically angry, depressed, indifferent, and sometimes even funny.  Kudos to Gordon-Levitt for not hamming it up.  What surprised me most about 50/50 was how effective Seth Rogen was.  I will readily admit that I hate hate hate Rogen as a lead actor --- he basically just points out when other characters are trying to be funny --- but I really enjoyed him here.  With Gordon-Levitt representing the average guy in a bad situation, Rogen is given the freedom to be crude and funny.  Going for jokes in this story would be enough to make Rogen stand out, but his awkward, atypical way of handling things helped deliver some surprisingly emotional moments.  Even if you absolutely can't stand Rogen's trademark scene commentary (so many of his jokes are just him describing what he's seeing), there are still things to like about his performance.
Rogen's sad face looks like Rocky after a fight
Anna Kendrick was solid as the romantic interest in the film.  She does a very good job with overwhelmed characters, so this was right in her comfort zone.  I really dislike Bryce Dallas Howard (if only for her role in The Village), so I was pleased that she was never shown in a positive light in this movie; sometimes, it's nice to have a reason to dislike an actor.  Anjelica Huston was good in her brief moments onscreen, although her character's neediness sometimes overwhelmed the scenes she was in.  Character actors Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall round out the cast as Adam's fellow cancer patients; Hall grabs your attention with his crotchetiness, but few actors can pull off "sickly" like Frewer.

The direction in 50/50 is not particularly striking, but I thought it was well-handled by Jonathan Levine.  There were only a few moments where his direction was truly felt --- the soft-focus/audio feedback when Adam was diagnosed was the most noticeable --- but I thought those moments were pretty effective.  The rest of the film relies on Levine to balance some pretty soul-searing emotional tragedy with jokes about getting laid.  It's a difficult task, but he pulls it off.
Actual line: "I look like Voldemort"
What I appreciated most about Levine's direction was how he dealt with some of the emotional reveals.  This is a movie about a cancer patient, so there are obviously going to be some intense, tear-welling moments, but some of the best moments came from quiet realizations; when Adam learns something that changes his attitude and it affects the viewer, it just shows how well Levine set up the contradictory idea beforehand.

50/50 doesn't bring a whole lot of novel ideas to the cancer movie sub-genre, but that's okay.  Since the path of a cancer patient is fairly predictable, that means that large chunks of the medical part of this movie are familiar.  That may be a good thing; I think the filmmakers assume the audience has at least a passing familiarity with the disease, which allows them to more or less bypass the doctor-speak and focus on the emotional repercussions.  Even though some parts of 50/50 were handled with beautiful understatement, this is still an emotionally wrenching movie.  In other words, this probably isn't a good date night flick.
...unless you want the evening to end like this
However, if a movie with serious fare being undercut by references to Seth Rogen's pubic hair grooming sounds like it's up your alley, 50/50 definitely delivers.  While I enjoyed the movie, it's probably not something I will see again in the near future.  This is probably my favorite example of how to handle serious illness in film (that I can think of off the top of my head), but it's still a hard movie for me to watch.  Most films aim to entertain, some strive to become art, but dramas about slowly dying (or maybe surviving --- no spoilers here) are difficult for me to justify watching.  It's not that I hate the movie, I just hate being put through an emotional wringer by fictional people.  In other words, I liked 50/50, even though it will never be considered the quintessential cancer movie; then again, I doubt I would want to watch any film claiming to be.

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