If I had a time machine (this flux capacitor thing is turning out to be much more complex than I originally thought) I’d go back to around 1995, find some underhanded Hollywood oddsmaker, and lay down some serious cash on Joseph Gordon-Levitt becoming a big deal. Whether it was his turn in my generation’s most uplifting sports movie, “Angels in the Outfield” (I’m only half kidding) or his consistent scene stealing on “3rd Rock from the Sun”, I just always had a feeling that this guy was going to make a serious mark. He disappeared for a few years and I bided my time, knowing that he was just one role from a breakout, hoping to be proven right. And then, BAM! 2007 rolls around and JGL shows up in “The Lookout”, a smart thriller that Roger Ebert himself raved about. From that point on, it’s been one well-respected film after another (we can all forget about “G.I. Joe”, right?). JGL is now a go-to-guy for leading indie roles and a mainstay for Christopher Nolan, perhaps the biggest director in the industry right now. I’ve been wrong many times (how is Danielle Fishel not taking roles from Ginnifer Goodwin?!) but I was spot on with JGL and “50/50” is my sweet vindication for touting his many virtues. Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is a rule-following, mild-mannered twentysomething who lives in Seattle with his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard), and works at Seattle Public Radio. His life takes a sudden and dramatic turn when he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that has taken over his spine. A laidback kind of guy, Adam handles each hurdle with surprising ease and levity while engaging in somewhat helpful counseling from Katie (Anna Kendrick), a young psychologist the hospital assigns him. Before long, though, his complex relationships with Rachael, his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), and his needy mother (Angelica Huston) become even more convoluted with the introduction of chemotherapy and medicinal marijuana into his life. As the severity of his condition increases, Adam begins to reassess his life, his relationships, and the nonplussed façade he uses to get himself through.
The inevitable comparisons between “50/50” and 2009’s “Funny People” are unfortunate. While I stuck up for “Funny People” more than most of my colleagues, even I will admit it is an incredibly flawed film that misses the mark on many levels. “50/50”, then, plays out a bit like what “Funny People” should have been, right down to the performance of Seth Rogen. It is, first and foremost, a very funny movie and that is where “Funny People” first went awry. You can’t make a comedy about cancer, or any other serious illness for that matter, and fail to produce a genuinely funny script. Laughs come often and organically. I also quite liked that writer Will Reiser (who based his script on the events of his own battle with cancer) makes it clear early on that he intends to laugh at cancer and if you’re not up for that, you’re in the wrong theater. That is not to say that the disease itself or the havoc it wreaks on Adam’s life is disrespected or ignored; in fact, “50/50” gives a fairly realistic view of the hell that is aggressive cancer and the sometimes even more aggressive treatment. “50/50” is bold but soft, a combination that works well.
The dialogue between the characters in “50/50” flows with tremendous ease, especially in the scenes involving Adam and Kyle. This dynamic between JGL and Rogen is the meat of the film and the two play it out brilliantly. They have a chemistry that Anne Hathaway only wishes she could develop with…well, anyone. (That was an unnecessary shot at Miss Hathaway. My apologies.) They reminded me of the type of friendship I might have with any one of my closer pals if we cursed more and occasionally smoked pot. Adam’s other relationships are a bit awkward but whether this was done on purpose or not, it serves the narrative well. In my mind he would have a tense partnership with Rachael because they’re clearly not suited for each other and any furtherance of his friendship with Katie beyond doctor-patient would be a bit odd.
All of the supporting actors hold their own. As spot-on as I might have been with JGL all those years ago, I would have never guessed, after reluctantly watching “Twilight”, that Kendrick would be an actress whose performances I truly look forward to. This isn’t quite to the level of her work in “Up in the Air” but it is good and believable nonetheless. Huston’s character seems a bit over-the-top in the early going but the depth of her character comes to light in the late stages and Huston pulls it together splendidly. And Rogen gives what might be his best performance to date. To be fair, I’m not much of a Rogen fan so I’m far from an expert on his value as an actor. But whereas he was completely outclassed in “Funny People” and pretty much plays the same character in almost every film, he shows a little more strength in “50/50” than he ever has before (with the possible exception of “Knocked Up”). I actually liked him and I haven’t felt that way toward him very often.
But of course, the weight of “50/50” rests almost entirely on the shoulders of JGL and he holds up to the challenge. One of the best compliments I can give an actor is to say that he and his character become one and the same. That’s what JGL does here and that’s why “50/50” succeeds. He envelopes himself into the Adam character and makes his portrayal incredibly believable. It is almost like watching a documentary on a young cancer patient. Adam handles his disease with class and dignity but not without emotion. His outbursts are few but powerful and through them JGL sells the story beautifully. Simply put, this guy is a star and “50/50” serves as the announcement of such to those of you who didn’t already know this to be fact.
“50/50” is honest and at times tough to watch but never purposefully harsh or depressing. In fact, it is generally positive but in a way that isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. It is smart, hilarious, and even touching while all the time remaining respectful of the audience’s ability to relate to difficult circumstances without artificial emotional fishing. It is an excellent film marked by one outstanding performance that deserves the attention received come Award Season.
I used italics a lot this time around, Brian