‘50/50:’ funny, moving – exhaustingMovie Review Thursday, September 29th, 2011
I think one of the weirder genres of film is the disease comedy. Even if the film itself is an organic melding of comedy and tragedy, the idea itself is jarring. Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey is a damn good movie (though a much better play), but it’s a sex comedy about AIDS. I mean, really. The Big C is a sitcom starring a host of wonderfully funny actors – Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, John Benjamin Hickey, Cynthia Nixon – but it’s about a woman with terminal cancer. Ugh. In the newest of the genre, 50/50, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) responds to the stunned silence that follows the announcement of his diagnosis by asking, “Have you seen Terms of Endearment?” referencing the mother of all cancer comedies. How meta. And since it’s meant to get a laugh, it’s even more self-referential.
But laughing along with characters who joke, as Adam does, about their suffering from fear, grief and pain has always made me uncomfortable. Gallows humor only works for me when I can easily identify with the pain of the joker. If I can’t, I begin to feel a bit guilty – as if I were eavesdropping on something very personal and very private. In maudlin Lifetime movies or bad melodramatic TV, this isn’t much of a problem, since the characters and the situations rarely seem real. But in something as well-made as 50/50 (or Terms of Endearment or Jeffrey), the movie-going experience is intense. You laugh and you cry. This can be a little exhausting.
Adam himself seems exhausted even before he gets cancer. A producer for a public radio station in Seattle with a rather lame girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a crass blowhard for a best friend (Seth Rogen), Adam seems underwhelmed by life. As in many plots in the genre, his diagnosis wakes him up. He gets annoyed, he gets sarcastic and he comes to understand much more powerful emotions that he hadn’t ever really experienced. Part of this is helped along by a young therapist (Anna Kendrick), who’s amazingly bad technique works despite, or maybe because of, Adam’s resistance. Adam doesn’t seem to want to be loved or cared for, and he even refuses to return the calls from his frantic mother (Anjelica Huston). He can do it all by himself, he thinks. But he’s wrong. Of course.
Will Reiser’s script is both moving and funny, with one of the best bits coming during a discussion of how 50/50 chances are, according to Seth Rogen’s character, actually pretty good. But while many of the jokes were somewhat expected, the ways that Reiser and the naturalistic director Jonathan Levine manipulated my emotions surprised me. They felt neither cheap nor creepy. They earned my tears by giving me characters that had expressive and specific love for each other and fear for a world without Adam in it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is, as is becoming usual, excellent. He’s a subtle actor, and this is perfectly suited for the role. His increasing sarcasm and anger is all the more potent coming from such a staid source. With his shaved head and pallid make-up, he is both sickly and adorable, a rather impressive feat. Seth Rogen, who seems to have stopped acting entirely and become glued to his loud and foul (though funny) schtick is an obvious and good sidekick, particularly when he gets to bust Howard for being the worst girlfriend ever. Kendrick seems to be playing the same role that she earned an Oscar nod for in Up in the Air, with the major exception that this character isn’t competent. As sweet, adorable and funny as Katherine is, she may beat Necessary Roughness’s Dr. Dani Santino for the current fictional therapist with the most egregious boundary problems. But it is only because the typical boundaries that cloister the experience of sickness are crossed that we’re able to experience Adam and his cancer; it may feel wrong, but it’s rewarding.
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by Will Reiser
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick
At your local multiplex
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