Comedies about cancer are a hard sell.
Honestly, 50/50 is more of a dramedy than anything else, but it’s a good deal funnier than most movies about cancer, I’ll give it that.
Also, it’s really very good.
There are very mild spoilers in this review, mostly about Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, aka, The Girlfriend). If you’ve ever seen a single interview for this movie, you probably already know all about The Girlfriend and her part to play in this film. Even if you haven’t, it’s pretty obvious where the character’s storyline is going almost immediately. Still, just so you know. If you don’t want to know anything about the movie, skip this review until you watch it.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. He tries to deal with it. So do his family and friends. Some people do a slightly better job of it than others.
1. Yeah, okay, that’s an especially crap summary, even for me. Still. Movies that are based on or inspired by true events aren’t exactly my forte. It’s even weirder when the guy who went through the events actually wrote the damn script. You feel kind of hesitant to criticize anything . . . although, being honest, I can’t find much to criticize in 50/50.
2. The customary breakdown on acting (among other things):
I can’t think of a lot of movies where Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t give a great performance, but he’s exceptionally good in 50/50. Adam is cautious, tense, ever-so-slightly neurotic . . . all qualities I can relate to, excellent . . . and Gordon-Levitt seems almost custom-made for the part. (It’s kind of hard to imagine James McAvoy as Adam now. He was originally cast and had to drop out—I just can’t see it, myself.)
You’re waiting the whole movie for Adam’s inevitable breakdown, and when it finally happens . . . yeah, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t hold back. It’s a great scene and an incredible performance. I just read that JGL got a Golden Globe nod for the part, and good for him. I don’t think he’s got a shot in hell of winning over Jean Dujardin from The Artist, but still. Kudos.
As you likely already know, Adam’s struggle with cancer is based on the real life struggle with cancer that screenwriter Will Reiser went through, and Will Reiser is best friends with Seth Rogen in real life. So Seth Rogen is playing Kyle, a fictionalized version of himself in Will’s story. Like I said before, it’s a really strange thing to judge.
Kyle is almost entirely used as the comic relief in this movie, and we really only get fleeting glimpses of what he’s going through on a deeper level . . . other than using Adam’s cancer to score chicks, of course. But that’s actually one of the things I really like about 50/50, its . . . minimalism, for lack of a better word. I don’t need Rogen to deliver a long, dramatic monologue at the end of the film about how hard this has all been for him. We already get that; it’s encapsulated in a couple of shots. Besides . . . this isn’t Kyle’s story, or Diane’s, or Rachael’s, or Katie’s. This is Adam’s story, and I like that the focus never really drifts from him.
But as far as Rogen’s actual performance goes—yeah, I like it, particularly the scene where he’s inappropriately gleeful about exposing Adam’s girlfriend for being unfaithful. He gets some of the best non-PC jokes, and he seems like a real person to me, not just a character, which is nice.
Anna Kendrick plays Katie, Adam’s young and inexperienced therapist. She also plays Adam’s potential love interest. I’ll talk a little more about that in a later note, but ultimately, I like Kendrick in 50/50. Per usual, the actress is charming. There’s something rather endearing about her performance, and I like her scenes with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They have a good energy with one another.
Bryce Dallas Howard
Heh. Speaking of energy. (You’ll get it when you see the movie.)
It’s nice to see that Bryce Dallas Howard is doing more stuff lately. I was so sure after The Village that she’d be someone to watch . . . but then I saw nothing for years.
I like Howard in 50/50 as well. Rachael, Adam’s girlfriend, promises to take care of him . . . but it’s quickly apparent that she can’t handle the pressure of it. Rachael might not be as three-dimensional as some of the other characters in the film, but Howard manages to give her a bit more depth than I think is actually written in the script. I felt the tiniest bit sorry for Rachael, and that’s actually saying a lot. I don’t usually waste my compassion on people who cheat on their partners who have cancer.
Anjelica Houston plays Diane, Adam’s mother, and per usual, she’s great. I’m a little sorry that she doesn’t have more to do—less because the movie needs more of her character and more because she’s a powerhouse and I just like watching her on screen. But yeah, she’s awesome, and her scenes with Joseph Gordon-Levitt are wonderful to watch.
3. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen of 50/50 has been about Anna Kendrick’s character and her relationship with Adam. People argue that it’s unprofessional and unrealistic, or that the whole romantic subplot is just plain unnecessary. And while I agree that the film works without turning Katie into a romantic lead . . . I don’t know, I just like how the whole thing is handled.
For starters, it helps that Katie’s young and new at this. The idea of boundaries being crossed between a female therapist and a male patient (or vice versa) isn’t exactly revolutionary. More importantly, though, their whole romance isn’t really much of a romance. They have a connection, sure, and some looks are exchanged, but . . . there are no heartfelt declarations of love, no running through airports or ridiculous fights in upscale restaurants. I’ll talk a little about the ending in my very brief spoiler section, but I thought the whole storyline was done really well, minimal enough to keep the attention where it’s supposed to be, on Adam on how he’s (not) handling what’s happening to him.
4. If anything in the film strikes me as unrealistic, actually, it’s how the oncologist tells Adam about his diagnosis.
Like I said before, criticizing a film inspired by true events is difficult because you don’t know how much of it is true and how much of it is exaggerated or just downright fictionalized in order to serve the story at hand. Maybe Will Reiser’s oncologist was really a gigantic, insensitive asshole. I don’t know. There are certainly dickish doctors out there. There’s pretty much a useless dick in every profession in the world.
But as someone who works with medical professionals on a regular basis. . . I have a hard time buying that any doctor would be so apathetic and rude with one of his patients as the guy in this movie. I mean, it’s a funny scene (in its way) and it’s not something that really bothers me a lot, just . . . now and again, I’m struck by wishing that movies gave a slightly more realistic impression of how the medical field works. The majority of doctors I’ve met are actually pretty good with the patients and patients’ families . . . its how they treat coworkers that tends to be a little on the demoralizing side.
5. Here’s something that’s kind of interesting: in the film, Adam’s father has Alzheimer’s. And if I’d had to put money on it, I probably would have bet that Will Reiser’s father did too. Not, you know, a lot, but I’d have wagered a few quarters. And I’d be out 50 to 75 cents.
I’m mentioning this because I really like how Adam’s father is depicted in this movie. Less because I have firsthand knowledge of the disease itself—I’m lucky enough not to—but because the story was just so matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I mean, this guy has cancer, a cheating girlfriend, an overprotective mom, and a dad with Alzheimer’s? Sweet Jesus. The potential for melodrama is fairly ridiculous.
But in 50/50, Adam’s dad’s disease is just treated like a fact, like it’s this sad thing that’s always present but that everyone’s already used to. I thought the Alzheimer’s was based on a real life experience because it doesn’t feel trite or overblown or cheap, and that’s a serious credit to Will Reiser. It would have been easy to make this film a soap opera with a few funny lines. This movie is so much more balanced than that. It’s smart and subtle and I think the tone is just perfect.
6. Some of the many, many awesome lines:
“You could totally have fucked the shit out of that girl.”
“No one wants to fuck me. I look like Voldemort.”
“Are you guys holding up all right?”
“It’s cold in here. Is there any way you can lower the air conditioning?”
“I’m sorry. Unfortunately, the temperature’s controlled by a central thermostat.”
“My son has cancer.”
“I have hated you for months, and now I have evidence that you suck as a person!”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink . . . I recycle.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come to your opening. It’s probably because I hate you so much.”
“Having a dog helps with the healing process.”
“What, does he have a medical license?”
“Forget it. I can just bring him back to the shelter in the morning.”
“Well, then what happens to him?”
“He’ll be put back in his tiny cage with ten other dogs who will bully and rape him until he’s eventually euthanized.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll keep the dog.”
“What’s the special occasion?”
“Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?”
7. Finally, predictions I made during the film that I cannot confirm or deny until the Spoiler Section:
In the course of his treatment, Adam meets some guys who are also going through chemotherapy. We meet the first one, Alan, and my immediate reaction?
Okay, so that one’s going to bite it.
Then the camera pans over to Matt Frewer sitting next to him, and I’m like, Nope, I was wrong. It’s him. It’s definitely him. Pushing up the daisies in forty-five minutes and counting . . .
Poor Matt Frewer. You know that guy just gets cast in stuff because he’s naturally gaunt. (And, well, because he’s awesome too. But seriously . . . Dawn of the Dead? Watchmen? Supernatural? You have a character who needs to look emaciated and/or vaguely diseased, you know where to go.)
Do you want to know if Adam makes it or not? Philip Baker Hall? Matt Frewer?
You’ll have to follow below.
Yeah, Matt Frewer totally bites it. I excel at predicting deaths based solely on casting.
Adam does not die, as you might expect. I mean, this movie is certainly only inspired by true events, not an actual depiction of them, but still, how depressing would that be, to write the story of how you didn’t beat cancer. Sounds like a demented therapy exercise, if I ever heard one.
Anyway, Adam’s chemo isn’t doing shit for him, so he has surgery instead. It’s pretty much his only chance. The night before, he has a complete meltdown in Kyle’s car, which . . . it’s just such a good scene.
He also has something of a much smaller breakdown the morning of his surgery with his mom, and again, the talent in that room . . . it’s really, really good stuff.
Adam survives the surgery, and Katie comes to visit him. He called her the night before during his breakdown and told her that she’d be a good girlfriend, that he wished she was his. Now, while in his post-op morphine haze, he adds that he wants to make pancakes for her. Also, that he’s peeing. Katie admirably doesn’t laugh at him.
Time passes—I can’t remember if they say how much—and Adam’s out of the hospital and doing better. His hair is starting to grow back. Kyle gets to put goop onto his scar. Sign of a true friend, that. He takes off when Katie comes over for a pizza date. She looks at Adam and asks, “Now what?” He smiles and the film ends.
I like that Katie and Adam never kiss in 50/50, not even at the end. I like that they never say I love you. I really like that the story isn’t about their getting together, that it never becomes some BS thing about I had to survive cancer for LUV, or something like that. Maybe the whole romantic subplot isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, but it seemed just about as underplayed and honest as it could have possibly been, and I really appreciated that.
Really evenly balanced dramedy with a great script and great acting. Moving and funny. Never melodramatic or cheap.
A- (But this might go up to an A in time. I’ve found that I’m usually a little hesitant to give solid A’s the first time around, but this one might get there with repeat viewings. As of right now, I have very few faults with the film.)
Every tragedy is at least a little funny? Really live your life while you’ve still got one? Or maybe, I get by with a little help from my friends? Certainly, I get high with a little help from my friends.