Tuesday, November 1, 2011

50/50 Movie Review: Laughing Our Way Through Cancer

50/50 might be one of the smartest films about living with cancer that I’ve seen. That it’s a comedy makes it all the more interesting to me. It’s not a cancer comedy the way The Bucket List is, with two old geezers having adventures that the conditions of their bodies would never permit in real life. 50/50, directed by Jonathan Levine from a script by real-life cancer survivor Will Reiser, is about a man in his late-20s who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and how he faces what could be his last days on earth.

When Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets the news from his doctor, an impersonal drone who delivers the diagnosis like he’s reading from a scientific journal (this is one of the few crass scenes that doesn’t quite ring true), he walks around in a bit of daze. Cancer isn’t something that strikes an otherwise healthy 27-year old who works for public radio, especially one who goes jogging every morning and always waits for the walk signal at intersections even when there aren’t any cars. Cancer comes to smokers, drinkers, people working in high-risk professions and those with generally unhealthy lifestyles. At the very least it’s for the elderly, right? That’s probably what Adam has always thought, as well his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), who doesn’t quite know how best to handle the shock: “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds,” he says referring to the film’s title. It’s almost certainly what the majority of the film’s target audience believes and that is 50/50’s greatest strength – making the disease accessible to a younger demographic as something more than a Movie of the Week weepy.

What Reiser’s witty and intelligent script does extraordinarily well is to strike a satisfying balance between the comedy that is borne of Adam’s refusal to become a poster-boy for the kind of“Living With Cancer” that accompanies the yellow bracelet-wearing culture we’ve spawned when it comes to this particular disease and the real emotional upheaval that necessarily results from being on the brink of death at such a young age. Yes, the film has its sentimental moments, but never pushes it to reach-for-the-tissues syrup. Levine’s directing keeps the film squarely perched on that fine line between that and outright cut-ups. The shifts in tone are fantastic, making us feel okay about laughing in spite of Adam’s situation, but then suddenly snapping us back to reality: violent vomiting in the middle of the night; being unable to enjoy sex with an anonymous young woman because of the pain; relief provided by Adam’s comrades in chemo, Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall), who are quick with a quip and like to ease the pain with medicinal marijuana until one of them succumbs.

Bryce Dallas Howard has an excellent turn as Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael. He gives her the opportunity to bail on him rather than be ‘stuck’ taking care of a cancer patient, driving him to and from the clinic for his treatments. Admirably she sticks around, but things start to get a little dicey down the road and Kyle’s dislike of her provides for a side-splittingly hilarious scene even as we realize how horrible she has acted and how terrible Adam must feel as a result. Easy as it is to pigeonhole Rachael as a monster, she’s actually quite an interesting, if slightly underdeveloped character. The truth is there’s something rather sad about her inability to cope with Adam’s disease and Howard handles the character beautifully. Unlike the limited material she had to work with in this summer’s The Help, here she has the room to craft a character that is more than cartoonishly evil.

The film’s final major character and the story’s biggest disappointment is Katherine (Anna Kendrick), Adam’s therapist, a doctoral candidate conducting research for her thesis. At only 24 and working with her third patient, there is great potential for exploiting a young and inexperienced therapist to add depth to both Levitt’s character as well as Kendrick’s. Instead the screenplay cheaply makes her the obvious romantic interest for him, creating a predictable transference subplot. I would have preferred that her character remain completely professional, helping Adam through his difficult time and parting ways on a realistic note while he finds romance in someone more suitable, such as a woman he briefly meets while walking his dog one day. Having Katherine develop feelings for Adam undermines everything that’s interesting about writing a young therapist into the story.

But that’s a forgivable and ultimately minor crime considering how naturally 50/50 arrives at its big climax. It refuses to oversell it and never begs for an emotional response as Adam says what could be his final goodbye to his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (Serge Houde). Therefore the film respectfully earns the audience tears. Even the most jaded may have to choke back a lump in the throat. And the best part of it all is that from that point the film can go either way. The narrative development doesn’t necessarily point to either death or survival. This is a great strength of the screenplay that it doesn’t let on too easily and also that either outcome would have been satisfying.

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