50/50 (2011)

7 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When a movie is made in which cancer is the central conflict, it’s so easy to go overboard with the movie’s dramatic elements. And it’s hard to feel anything for the cancer patient when the movie is trying so hard to make the audience weep that it just becomes corny. But “50/50” managed to beat that problem and is, in my opinion, one of the very best films of 2011.

The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young man named Adam Lerner who learns that he has a rare form of spinal cancer and the chances for survival are 50/50. He feels his life turning upside down, as he didn’t expect to be expected to die so young. He breaks the news to the people in his life, who react in different ways. He first tells his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who guarantees to stand by him and look out for him. Then he tells Kyle (Seth Rogen), his vulgar but loyal best friend who wants to keep Adam’s spirits up even though sometimes he can go too far when it comes to parties. And then he tells his mother (Angelica Huston), who constantly calls to check on him and already has to care for her husband who has Alzheimer’s disease.

During chemotherapy, he befriends two other cancer patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who are constantly stoned with medical marijuana and “weed macaroons.” He also gets a therapist—a pretty, naïve, innocent 24-year-old named Katherine (Anna Kendrick) whose new patient is her third.

The screenplay for “50/50” by Will Reiser, a comedy writer, is loosely based on his life, as he had spinal cancer like the main character of this movie. Mostly, he writes from past experience about dealing with this disease, and delivers well-written scenes that feature how Adam deals with his cancer and how his friends react around him. But more importantly, he adds another key ingredient to making “50/50” work—comic relief. Observe the naïve behavior of the Kendrick character in her first scene, and then keep watching and listening to the dialogue in the following scenes that feature her. They’re both funny and endearing. And then there’s the improvised-in-character scene as Adam shaves his head as Kyle watches in confusion and something close to fright. And then you have Seth Rogen, who specializes in playing the goofy, profane, vulgar best friend in many other movies. Rogen is Reiser’s friend in reality and his role is essentially based on how he dealt with his friend’s cancer. Reiser and Rogen take Rogen’s usual characteristics that people have seen in other movies and just when you think it’s starting to wear thin on us, the story moves on to something else for a while before coming back to him. Don’t get me wrong—Rogen is pretty funny in most of his scenes, but when a lot of other situations in the movie are to be taken seriously, only sometimes he seems out of place. But then, Rogen’s character becomes even more endearing when we get to his payoff in the final act of the story. It’s handled in a very effective way. The drama and comedy in “50/50” blend wonderfully.

The actors in “50/50” are all wonderful as well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the best young actors in recent memory (he was also fantastic in 2009’s “(500) Days of Summer”), as Adam is so winning and endearing that when the time came for his final surgery, I was almost as worried about what his outcome would be as he and his family and friends were. There’s one scene in particular that is just heartbreaking—it’s when he finally snaps and lets out all of his anger on the night before his surgery. I sure hope he gets an Oscar nomination for this performance. Seth Rogen, like I said, is more than a smartass best friend. Angelica Huston avoids the cliché of overbearing mother and makes her character more three-dimensional than she starts out with when she hears the news. Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer steal their scenes together. And then there’s Anna Kendrick, the Oscar-nominated actress from “Up in the Air” and who was also in the “Twilight” movies. She always has a charming screen presence and makes her character likable, always. I will watch her in any movie, even if it’s just a brief appearance. Many reviews of this movie have complaints against the Bryce Dallas Howard character because of her actions as the movie progresses. I have no complaints because even if what she did was a wrong move, I believe she did learn her lesson and actually sympathetic towards her in her final scene.

With great acting and a great screenplay, “50/50” is a movie dealing with cancer in a touching but also funny way. It reminds us that when faced with a situation like this, there are only two ways to get through it—with tears or with amusement. This is one of the best films of 2011.

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