50/50 has heart, humor and a healthy outlook on life

50/50 – 2011

Directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Houston, Bryce Dallas Howard, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall
Written by  Will Reiser

50/50 is a story of based upon writer Will Reiser’s bout with cancer, but it accomplishes more than that.  As Adam Lerner (Levitt) journeys through his own path to survival, he learns that sympathy is something that needs to extend both ways.

Working for a public radio station, Adam and his friend, Kyle (Rogen) lead decent and humble lives.  Adam’s relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Howard) is clearly not working, only he seems unaware of this.  He hasn’t really talked to his mother Diane (Houston) in years.  This is indicative of her seemingly oppressively caring nature, and somewhat due to the fact that his father (Houde) is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Much of their suffering, Adam leans away from, even after he is initially diagnosed.

Rachael is also leaning away, but it takes the help of Kyle to help him realize this.  As Kyle, is on par with he previous performances.  The differences are subtle, but significant.  His belligerence is seemingly overbearing and selfishly motivated, but it is also key to Adam’s recovery.  In playing his illness as an angle for both of them, Kyle is really treating Adam as possessing a vitality that others have overlooked.  Always the next mission, never the last.  Rogen is always close to being a parody of himself (exhibit A: Green Hornet), but given the right guidance, he can be very effective.

Another positive, albeit an awkward one is his therapist, Katherine (Kendrick).  Although she is young, inexperienced and still anything but natural in the role, she provides a key point of understanding for Adam with his relationship with his mother.  If she had done nothing else in the role, her performance would still have been a success.  Unfortunately, and I am guessing due to economy of characters, they choose to make her relationship with Adam more than professional.  As well acted as it is (and what great dialogue they share), it comes across as somewhat cliché.

Houston’s Diane Lerner, however, is anything but a common character or portrayal.  By playing her as a straight up caring Mother, Houston avoids the pitfall so common in the role of a mother in a weepy comedy.  I was ready for her to be annoying, but was pleasantly surprised to see what was made of the role.

Many people know by now that Levitt stepped into the role of Adam after James McAvoy left to witness the birth of his child.  His first day on the set, they shaved his head.  This was an unfortunate choice for one reason: in the early stages of the movie, he is quite obviously wearing a hairpiece.  Luckily, this is the only problem with Levitt’s performance.  As Adam, he is a person that life just kind of happens to.  After he discovers that he has cancer, he utters an incredible line:

“That doesn’t make any sense though. I mean… I don’t smoke, I don’t drink… I recycle…”

Soon enough, he learns to smoke medicinal marijuana with Kyle, and picks up a few friends in chemotherapy.  Mitch (Frewer) and Alan (Hall) allow him to find some peace with his situation when they speak plainly and truthfully to him.  Their roles have been done in many such films, but the skill of Frewer and Hall make their characters memorable and affecting at a root level.

The most important aspect to Levitt’s performance is how he grows to appreciate his mother and father, who suffer with even more dignity than he pictures himself doing.  This dawning is a true moment of his healing.  Life can kill you, but it cannot kill your capacity for understanding and empathy.  Levitt shows this, almost imperceptibly, but it is a performance roars to be recognized.

Levine’s direction takes the subtlety of Reiser’s script and makes it a thoroughly engaging movie.  Aside from the Therapist as potential love interest routine, which demeans both the profession and the patient, there is not a missed beat in the film.  The pace is enough to keep it from being weighted down by the subject, but not slow enough to incur an excessive amount of dread.  I have not seen any of his earlier work, but this film makes me want to.

Reiser can be proud that he took a trial in his life and managed to make art that most of us can relate to.  Fighting for your life is not without its moments of humor.  Even when your life is in decline, you can still find the spark, if you open your eyes.  I leave you with the key dialogue and, for me, the lingering memory of the movie for me:

“Katherine: Don’t worry about it. I have parents too.

Adam: Do yours give you migraines?
Katherine: Well, I would talk to my therapist about my parents.
Adam: Oh, really?
Katherine: Yeah, we could do uh…a role play. I’ll be your mom?
Adam: Oh, God! No, that’s disgusting!
Katherine: Why is that disgusting?
Adam: Uh…no, it’s not. I mean…okay, my mom uh…she’s a crazy person. She just worries all day, every day. And um…honestly, it annoys the shit out of me. It’s way too much and it’s not helpful and um…I can’t talk to her. I…I don’t call her back. That’s the problem.
Katherine: So she’s got this…this husband that can’t talk to her, and uh…this son that won’t?
Adam: Uh…yeah, I guess.
Katherine: Makes you kind of a dick.
Adam: Me? Is that like a medical term?
[they both laugh]
Katherine: Yeah. I mean…listen uh…you can’t change who your parents are. The only thing that you can change is uh…how you choose to deal with that.
Adam: Aren’t you supposed to like subtly manipulate me into figuring this stuff out, not just call me ‘I’m a shit’?”

(**** out of *****)

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