Most critics have acknowledged how 50/50, directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) finds borderline tasteful comedy in any grim situation like young Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose jogging back pains is actually a malignant tumor with an unpronounceable scientific name. There’s also my search in something deeper than that, in how this movie shows these characters within boundaries set both by others and themselves and the crossing of boundaries, as in ‘movie world set-ups’ with resolution to conflicts.
The first scenes competently set-up what the characters are like before the diagnosis wedges itself violently into their situations and these characters often fall within some spectrum between being the funny one and the depressing on, as they would in life. There’s Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) who is intentionally funny, his mostly unintentionally funny novice counselor Katherine (Anna Kendrick), his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) who is only funny from the fourth wall and through an imagined hindsight and his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is pretty dramatic and sees the illness as a negative thing she can’t fully endure that the thought of entering the hospital wing with him is unthinkable.
Adam at first is the Alan Ruck to Kyle’s Matthew Broderick, their opposites mixing because they work together in radio. The silver lining in his situation other than Kyle’s jokey optimism is how Adam can oscillate within the spectrum of emotion and, as circumstances would have it, move up a bit to see Kyle’s coarse yet optimistic side of things.
The only downside with Adam ‘hanging out with his bro’ is that the mother major characters, who are female, become ignored or occasionally turn into insufferable villains. It’s not hard to make that assumption because of the associations I have about Seth Rogen and the word I used earlier on Twitter. It’s hard for me to side with Adam as he’s cursing at Rachael, the latter crying on his porch.
He also walks out from Katherine’s office, a final symptom of his lack of respect for her, a young inexperienced doctor. Yes, I’m thankful that an exchange exists when Katherine calls Adam out. But despite most of these actions being temporary and all the hurt forgiven, there’s something unapologetic and queasy about Adam and Kyle’s mistreatment and suspicion of women. And of course most of the cancer patients are male and most characters taking care of these men are female and the nurses are perfect lest Adam’s voice strikes with damnation and the script allows him meanness because he might die soon.
Before I get carried away with negativity, let me say that Levitt is more wan here than in any other role in his decade-long film career. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the lack of hair and make-up that comes across the screen but his performance proves that he’s one of the most versatile actors in his age. He’s even one guarded step behind in Adam’s scenes above, instead of acting on intention he behaves instinctively, performing in a naturalistic way. There’s also a scene when, As Adam has shunned everyone else, he and Kyle face each other’s issues, leading to Levitt’s haunting primal scream.
Most of the actors are equally toned down except for Rogen, who has the hard job of carrying the funny side, peppering Kyle’s dialogue with vulgarities. Kendrick tones down the watchable histrionics of her early roles to become the movie’s voice of sanity, Huston beings a hard exterior with softer inner qualities. And it kind of pisses me off that Bryce Dallas Howard can actually act.
Surely everyone diagnosed with cancer is new to it, even Adam’s older chemo buddies. But so is Katherine, admitting that Adam is her third patient. She tries a lot of methods like instrumental meditation music and the polite but tough love, making Adam feel out of the loop in his already precarious state. The one that she keeps returning to is the touching, an act of connection that she has probably seen others do that she feels the need to learn it. It might make sense if an expert psychiatrist pats expertly Adam in the arm three or so times and he accepts it during the last time. We’ll never know how the movie’s alchemy might change if his therapist was ‘some grandma.’ But it is more fitting that her patting is more awkward if she does it incorrectly, symbolic of the rough journey where both the sick and his doctor have to talk to each properly other to finally get it right.
- Film Review: 50/50 (3.5 stars) (arts.nationalpost.com)