'50/50': Positive Prognosis
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"50/50" is some kind of comedy about cancer, the
Big C as unlikely catalyst for growing up. The laughs and dramatic lows don't
always blend as organically as one might wish, and a couple of scenes feel like
calculated setups for sentimentality. Still, the prognosis is mostly positive,
thanks to the genuine sweetness and pure joy generated by this surprisingly
feel-good flick. Jonathan Levine ("The Wackness") directs with the kind of laid-back
affection that pot-laced macaroons might inspire, and screenwriter Will Reiser,
whose bio "50/50" mostly is, delivers some hard-core truths as well as
therapeutic humor while treating more than one kind of death.
Once again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt scores. His Adam Lerner is a 20something type we've all known -- or been. Though Adam possesses the accoutrements of adulthood -- job, friend, live-in lover -- there's something not quite finished, not quite there, about this soft-spoken boy. We first meet him as he jogs through town, zoned out to earbud sounds. Dutifully, he halts for a red light while other runners dash by. His face scrubbed of expression, unmarked by experience, Adam suggests someone not fully at home in his own life. He plays by the rules, stopping short of rocking the boat or acting out. Does his NPR radio job disappoint? Has his gorgeous girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), lost interest in sex? Does mom (Anjelica Huston, superb) cow him? No problem-o. Some existential passivity, call it caution or cowardice or just numbness, keeps Adam Lerner on the curb, unwilling to step off and step up.
Then the sleepwalker's knocked for a loop. Suddenly he's listening to an impossibly heartless medico dictating his diagnosis of a malignant spinal tumor -- fatal in 50 percent of cases -- without bothering to address the patient directly. Something small and terrified begins to skitter just beneath Adam's skin. It's a sign of life, and in the dreadful, often hilarious journey to come, that twitch will evolve into full-blown emotion, animating Adam into genuine adulthood.
Perversely, with every shot of chemotherapy, Adam's disengaged stance takes a hit. Sure, he's barfing his brains out, and when his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) plots to seduce bar babes with heart-melting cancer come-ons, Adam can barely rise to the occasion. Still, zombie boy's coming alive, and it's sheer pleasure to watch how subtly Gordon-Levitt signals his slo-mo evolution.
Adam's nail-biting cancer counselor (Anna Kendrick), so green she falls for her third-ever patient, teases Adam out of the emotional closet with every tentative gesture and impulsive word of comfort. Kendrick may be channeling her adorable "Up in the Air" mouse, but in the company of Gordon-Levitt she's more: a beacon-bright Gretel determined to help Hansel find his way home.
The other women in Adam's life either abandon or upstage him. Less monster than empathy-challenged good-time girl, Rachael can't remember to pick up her wasted boyfriend after a bout of chemo. Huston's smothering mom, a hoot in her shameless bids for attention, screams stereotype; but she's only human, a frantic, lonely woman caring for a husband with Alzheimer's, afraid she's going to lose her son as well. As Adam grows a spine, his "birthdays" are marked by righteous confrontations with Rachael and his mother, one triumphant in its assertion of independent manhood, the other a heartbreaking surrender to childish terror.
The big wind beneath Gordon-Levitt's wings (insert snicker) is Seth Rogen. As Adam's best bud Kyle, Rogen's performance shows more emotional depth and less of that knucklehead insensitivity he's famous for. Chalk that up to the friendship and writing gig Rogen and Reiser shared while Reiser battled cancer. Together, the two shaped the experience into a script.
"I'm going to throw up!" threatens Kyle when he hears Adam has cancer. Reacting viscerally to whatever curveballs life throws him, Kyle might be his BFF's doppelganger. Rude, coarse, big-mouthed, unkempt, Kyle's every expression is as broad as a cartoon. Squeezed into a bathroom with his fast-balding friend, he grimaces and giggles in horror as Adam shaves his pate -- with the razor Kyle uses to tame his abundant body hair! The pals talk right over each other, yet always manage to finish each other's sentences. There's a clunky, comfortable rhythm to their give-and-take, akin to the way old married people communicate. But even this true (b)romance isn't spared when Adam finally explodes in cathartic rage.
We'd like more of Adam's chemo club -- wonderful Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer (always and forever Max Headroom) -- with whom he shares pot-stuffed macaroons. Afterward, sporting a stoner grin, Adam floats down a hospital corridor, oblivious to intimations of mortality. It's a magical moment in the story of a sleeping beauty whose wake-up call only looks like the kiss of death.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.