Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Catching Up: "50/50"


Playing tragedy for laughs is no easy feat, and too often comes across as forced and maudlin.  For every Terms of Endearment there's a Bucket List.  50/50 is somewhere in the middle, which isn't a bad place to be, neither as profound as it might want to be nor as lightweight as it easily could have been.

It's anchored by the always reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor who I hope won't succumb to Big Screen Talent despite his roles in Inception and the upcoming Batman threequel.  Levitt has the rare ability to be intense but never unlikable, a characteristic that serves 50/50 well.  This isn't a movie about a man dying of cancer -- it's a movie about a man who doesn't understand why life is more difficult than he expected it to be.  The cancer part is easy, the way it changes his world view is the hard part.

That's what 50/50 does best, showing the way he has to adjust to a different world view.  To its credit, 50/50 doesn't romanticize the illness -- Adam, the Gordon-Levitt character, is no angelic martyr whose life might be cut tragically short; he's just a man who has gotten sick, and no one in his life, he above all, knows exactly what to do about it.

Seth Rogen is his best buddy, Kyle, whose role in 50/50 is less defined, and is the reason the movie falters.  Rogen's a generous, likable actor, but 50/50 isn't sure what to do about that.  Most of the time, he's the pal with good intentions, but it takes a long while for the movie to really get to the heart of what's going wrong -- that cancer is changing Adam in imperceptible but permanent ways, and that means the two of them are growing apart.

There's the girlfriend who can't hack it, the parents who are trying their best even though one of them has Alzheimer's disease, the young therapist who speaks in sweet aphorisms but is just as helpless as any of them.  These are vaguely defined roles, and some awfully good actors -- Anjelica Huston as the mother, Anna Kendrick as the therapist, Bryce Dallas Howard as the girlfriend -- flail about looking for the characters in an underwritten script.  They're types, not people.  The movie really goes wrong when it tries to develop a romantic relationship between therapist and patient.

What it gets very right, though, is the uncertainty behind the diagnosis, the fear Adam has that he might not get to live the life he imagined, the life he never really started to live in the first place, despite his best efforts.  Gordon-Levitt nicely gets to the heart of a man who had an idea of what he wanted to be, and now might not get to be it.

He's the prime reason to see 50/50, though for a great example of what he can do, try the vastly underrated crime-thriller The Lookout instead.  Mostly, 50/50 is a little too chirpy, a little too tidy.  There are moments, excellent moments, when Adam and Kyle are together and the actors show the fear both of them have -- one for his life, the other for his friend.  Had 50/50 focused more on them and less on the quirky, charming characters who are trying, really trying, to understand all this, it might have come out ahead.  As it is, 50/50 is a pretty apt title, indicative of how much it gets right and how much it gets not wrong, exactly, but not quite where it needs to be.

Viewed January 20, 2012 - Video on Demand

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