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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

50/50

And now for the film of the week...

 50/50 is that most tricky of balancing acts: a gut-wrenching drama about cancer that also happens to be consistently laugh-out-loud funny. That it's gut-wrenching isn't particularly surprising when you consider that, tragically, the topic of cancer (no play on "Tropic of Cancer" intended, smart asses) has probably ever been more relevant. It's hard to find anyone who hasn't tackled with this most infernal of infernal diseases in their own life, whether suffering personally or watching a loved one struggle with it. What makes 50/50 a truly worthwhile work, though, is its perfect use of well-timed comedy and properly-placed sentiment (a well-worn book in a bathroom, perhaps?) to elevate what could so easily have been an unpleasant, probably mawkish, masochistic viewing experience into something truly humane, uplifting and exquisitely moving. And, yes, at times very, very funny to boot.



Its story is a simple one. Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a young man who finds out that he has a rare form of spinal cancer and he soon finds out not just how he will be able to cope with a disease that has a 50% mortality rate (hence the title), but also who of his friends, family and acquaintances will truly be there for him when he needs them most. As the film unfolds Adam is confronted by a best friend (Seth Rogen) who seems more interested in using Adam's cancer as a way of getting them laid than anything else; a girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) unable to cope with what the man she lives with is going through; a highly anxious mother (Anjelica Huston) who already is over-burdened by Adam's Alzheimer-riddled father and a young, newbie therapist (Anna Kendrick) who finds it increasingly impossible to connect with the man she is meant to be helping.

This clearly resembles nothing so much as  a recipe for a truly awful bit of schmaltzy melodrama but, almost miraculously, the end result is anything but. The reasons for this are multi-fold but the reason it plays so true to life presumably has a lot to do with the film's origins. The story being told is one that is largely and faithfully based on (SPOILER ALERT) the cancer-experience that the film's writer, Will Reiser, went through and on Seth Rogen's own friendship with Reiser during that period in his life. Not that being "based on a true story" is always a guarantee of authenticity or quality but it certainly helps in this case, as does Reiser's  unquestionable gift for crafting some genuinely witty, but still emotionally charged, dialogue.

Not to downplay indie director Jonathan Levine's subtle and subdued hand at bringing the material to life but the other essential ingredient in the film's success beyond Reiser's exceptional script is the wonderful cast of actors who bring all  of their considerable talents to this very personal story. Rogen, wisely playing a supporting role, hasn't been this good since his heyday in Freaks and Geeks and The 40 Year Old Virgin as he draws on his own life to add a real dramatic weight to his character, while also being responsible for most of the film's many funny moments.

Anjelica Huston, meanwhile, is her usually brilliant self, as she gives a potentially one-note character plenty of nuance, while Bryce Dallas Howard again plays the film's "villain" (and I use that term loosely) but she too is far more nuanced than she might seem at first. Best of all in the "best supporting actress" category, though, is Anna Kendrick whose character may stretch believability (if nothing else, surely a trainee psychotherapist/ psychiatrist working at a teaching hospital should have an immediate and constant supervisor?) but she brings such warmth, compassion and humour to the role - not to mention a lovely chemistry with Joseph Gordon Levitt - that it's impossible to leave the cinema without having fallen just a little bit in love with her.          

Best of all, though, and the central, beating heart of the film is the constantly terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt who takes his considerable talents and ups them to a career-best performance. His already complex character becomes even more multi-faceted as his illness becomes more and more a reality for him and there isn't a character trait, emotion or tonal shift that he isn't ready for. Whether his character is wryly laid-back, suffering with the side-effects of chemotherapy or having an emotional breakdown, Gordon-Levitt is always up to the task and his hands, Adam is simply a very human character with whom we can relate, sympathize and, very simply, enjoy spending some time in his company.

50/50 is a somewhat difficult film to recommend simply because the subject it deals with is so painful to so many people but, if you can stomach it - and perhaps even if you can't - it is a very fine piece of filmmaking more than worth the investment of your money, time, energy and emotions.


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