Friday, February 10, 2012

"50/50" (2011)

Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick
Written by William Reiser
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Rated R: Language, drug use, sexual content
Running Time: 100 minutes

They say humor is a defense mechanism. So, then, "50/50" employs it as an integral part of its premise.  Smalls told me I'd cry during this one...

Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a young, healthy man. He eats well, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, recycles, has a nice job... and he has cancer. He finds out one day that there's a tumor growing on his spine, and he has a 50% chance of survival. His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) sees this as an opportunity to get laid. His girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) sees it as an opportunity to cheat. His mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) sees it as an opportunity to take care of him.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Adam begins seeing a young therapist named Katherine McCay (Anna Kendrick) whom he suspects is underqualified, but he continues going because he likes her. As his health deteriorates, Adam goes through the various stages of dealing physically and emotionally with his cancer, which causes strife between himself and his friends and loved ones, and eventually with his therapist.

"50/50" is full of sad, dramatic scenes of people dealing with the fallout of the cancer struggle. But, at the same time, it injects all of these scenarios with a healthy dose of humor to defuse the uncomfortable awkwardness, and it does so through the entire film, though there are parts that are entirely serious. This is what makes "50/50" so worthwhile and notable, because it takes these terrible things and makes them both entertaining and touching.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is one of those actors who can deftly balance the humor with the serious drama, and he captures the frustration of a man who feels like life has dealt him a crappy hand and who is surrounded by people who want to help him, but ultimately have no idea how. His best friend seems more concerned with using Adam's sickness to get himself laid, his mother smothers him to the point of obnoxiousness, his coworkers can't seem to figure out what to say to him, etc.

Even his therapist is forced to confront her own inexperience when dealing with him because her first instinct is to tell him that what he's feeling is normal and he'll get through it - but that's what's driving him nuts.

But the script is careful to make sure that the film has enough cathartic moments to break through all the dour being piled upon Adam throughout. The cast, especially Rogen, seem like they're having a lot of fun which is weird to say in a film about someone possibly dying of cancer. Those are the moments, of course, that allow us to not just sympathize with the film, but to enjoy it.  The humor is never forced; the characters always come across as two guys who have known each other for a long time and have a rapport.  The chemistry between Rogen and Levitt makes this work just as much as the script.

Levitt makes a good straight man for Rogen, and we get glimpses into Adam's character before his diagnosis that paint him as a bit of a milquetoast.  His arc, then, becomes much more than simply surviving his cancer, but moving through the stages indeed seems to grow him as a person, even as the cancer seems to be sapping his physical strength.  As the film opens, Adam won't cross a street until the 'walk' signal lights up, and in the shower he ponders whether or not to use his girlfriend's shampoo when his own runs out.  Even at work, he sort of mumbles through a problem regarding editing a story to his boss, who can't seem to care less about such a minuscule problem.

The romantic subplot with Katherine is sweet, but a bit obvious.  It's not as though the film beats us over the head with it, more like it's just that we know where this is going from the second the two meet.  That the script throws us bones like that Adam's current girlfriend cheats on him, and that Kyle is always telling him he's hated all of Adam's girlfriends, doesn't help.  Still, Kendrick is a kind, sweet presence to balance the film that feels like it could be easily overpowered by Rogen's raunchy humor.

Smalls told me I'd cry during this one, but wouldn't take it as a bet.  I didn't - but that doesn't mean that "50/50" is any less an effective film.  It does tug at the heartstrings, and hard, but it carefully balances that out with humor and catharsis.  And, thankfully, the humor is infused well enough that the film doesn't veer wildly from tone to tone like some other dramedies can, undermining one or the other by throwing off the audience.

Overall, "50/50" can feel a little understated at times, but the script is both funny and touching, the cast grabs ahold of it and runs, leaving us with a film that is sweet, funny, sad, and ultimately very satisfying.