Film Review: '50/50'

Film Review: ’50/50′

There wasn’t much going on this Saturday, so I figured I might as well take the Brown Line up to the Western stop, then catch the 1:10 viewing at the Davis Theatre. I wasn’t much in the mood to head downtown to one of the AMCs, so I decided to venture uptown.

The Davis is one of those theaters that looks like it’s been around for years. It has the old-style theater sign with the letters descending in vertical order. I’d been there once before to see The King’s Speech with a friend who lives around the area, but I didn’t remember the distinct smell of urine that pervaded everywhere, from the box-office to the screening room itself.

I got there about 20 minutes early, and there weren’t many people. A 20-something couple were seated in the middle, and the guy was telling his paramour about the latest Office episode, where Kevin’s omitted the prepositions and conjunctions from his sentences for the purpose of saving time while everyone else thinks he’s having a stroke.

I took my seat and noticed that the screen was on a slant. That is, if you were seated on the left side of the theater, you’d have to tilt your head, so I moved closer to the center, which helped a bit but not much. A little while later, a group of elderly people came in and started talking loudly through the commercials. I started coming up with polite but stern warnings to utter if it continued.

But it didn’t, and once the opening credits came up, the talking, the screen, the urine, none of it mattered. 50/50 is one of the best movies of the year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Adam, a sound engineer at a Seattle Public Radio station. He lives with his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) and spends time waiting in line for coffee with and taking gentle ribs from his co-worker and best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). One day he gets a pain in his back and goes to the doctor, who informs him in no un-condescending terms that he has a rare form of cancer creeping into his spine. Adam’s hit broadside. No one his age should get cancer, and he doesn’t even smoke or drink. He recycles, for God’s sake.

At first, Rachel and Kyle are encouraging, but he suspects that Kyle is using his condition to pick up women, and Rachel is outed as having an affair. The most difficult hump for Adam, however, is breaking the news to his mother (Angelica Huston), who already has her hands full caring for Adam’s senile father (Serge Houde).

The hospital recommends that Adam get counseling. He does, but his counselor Katie (Anna Kendrick) is very new to the job. She’s 24, Adam is her third patient, and she doesn’t even get his Doogie Howser reference. She’s just as clueless as he is, but she tries to help, going above and beyond by even offering to drive him home and giving him her cell phone number should he need to get in touch. Adam’s resistant, and finds more comfort in eating pot-laced cookies provided by his fellow chemo patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer). I’m speeding through the details because, if you see the film, it’s best left to take them as they come.

Having glanced over a few reviews, I expected 50/50 to have some tasteful laughs and be a competent (and I don’t mean that in a condescending way), serious-minded film, but I never expected it to be so heartfelt. Director Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Yes, you read that correctly) and screenwriter Will Reiser perfectly capture the sense of helplessness that surrounds cancer—all you can do is wait and hope—from Adam’s mother, who knows she can’t do anything but insists on caring for Adam regardless; to Rachel, who wants to help but finds romance elsewhere; to Katie, who’s working through her own issues but, despite her lack of experience, desperately wants to please.

By the same token, the humor works because we’re so invested in the characters. When Seth Rogen delivers a one-liner to the performing surgeon following an operation, I laughed not because the line itself was particularly funny, but because it was a sigh of relief and said everything the audience was thinking.

All of the actors do a phenomenal job, not the least of which is Gordon-Levitt, who’s a perfect audience surrogate, knowing absolutely nothing about what he should or even can do. His role calls for so many emotions—passivity, petulance, frustration, cheer, rage—and he plays each of them with total conviction and believability. Levine’s dreary cinematography of grays and blues adds much to the dour mood, first in emphasizing the comfortable routine of Adam’s life and later in the dreariness of his life upended.

Rogen was born to play his role, balancing humor and genuine concern with a subtlety that’s often overlooked in his performances. In a way, his character has the biggest and yet most unnoticeable arc, going from casual reassurance to resistance before maturing into reliability, acceptance, and vulnerability.

Huston is excellent as Diane, Adam’s overly attentive mother. In the scene where Adam invites his parents over for dinner to break the news, she’s walking up the stairs to his house, pausing for a moment to mention that the paint on his railing has peeled and offers to call the landlord. She doesn’t know about her son’s diagnosis, so the dramatic irony heightens the scene, but it also shows her as constantly on alert to anything that needs attending. It’s tinged with humor, yes, though Huston, with so few words, delivers the line almost as rote. Immediately you understand that she’s a woman who’s been the caregiver for so long that recognizing and fixing problems have become second nature, and now the only person left in her life is about to tell her that he may die, and she can do nothing about it. All in just a scant little line.

In another scene Katie asks why Adam hasn’t returned his mother’s calls. He gives an offhand answer and Katie shuts him down by pointing out that, of the men in his mother’s life, one can’t speak to her and the other won’t. It’s a powerful scene that demonstrates how the afflicted is not the only one who suffers, but doubly so because it puts an enormous amount of sympathy onto Huston’s character, who’s not even present, but her presence is felt.

However, perhaps the biggest surprise is Howard. Maybe it’s not the performance, rather it’s the writing. Her choices, though poor at times, nevertheless are somewhat excusable. She insists on staying with Adam and helping him through this, but even she needs some reassurance, and it’s so well written that when Kyle launches into a tirade against her, we still can see her side of things and feel some sympathy—Kyle’s looking for something, anything, to blame, and Adam, though bitter, seems to understand. All three actors pull it off.

In all, this was the movie I expected, but it still defied my expectations. I would never guess that a movie featuring Seth Rogen, Philip Baker Hall, and Max Headroom would be so touching. I admire it most for daring to give all its characters a fair shake despite their flaws. 50/50 examines what seems to be nearly every aspect of a cancer victim’s struggle while exploring the impact it has on the people closest to them. And it does so with a humor and understanding of nuance that’s deeply satisfying. When I rose to leave, I noticed that the theatre had filled up. Filled up with an audience that was just as taken with the film as I was. I wouldn’t have thought so, but understood once it was over.


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  • Dan O'Neill
    October 3, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Mixing humor and painful subject matter is, naturally, very difficult.
    The beauty of this movie is that it does so with ease, especially with
    such good actors in these roles as well. Good review. Check out my
    review when you get a chance.