As much as the trailer for 50/50 looked interesting, I was wary about watching Seth Rogen do another movie where he plays friend to someone who is dying of some disease. After all, we already saw him do that for Judd Apatow in Funny People and, well, it wasn’t that funny. The fact that 50/50 is produced by Rogen and is based on the story of his own friend wasn’t enough to convince me and so I wound up missing the movie in theaters. It turns out that was a big mistake – almost as big a mistake as the movie being completely overlooked by the Academy in this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s unfortunate that, while I fixed my mistake, the Academy won’t be able to fix theirs.
Continuing his trend of interesting roles with considerable depth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in 50/50 as Adam, a good guy with a good life: he takes care of his health by jogging and not smoking or drinking, he has a gorgeous girlfriend artist (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a crude somewhat-loser friend (Rogen), and a good, albeit boring, job working in public radio. With such a wholesome life, it’s understandable that, when Adam goes to his doctor about some back pain and finds out he has cancer, his whole life comes unraveling out of control as he undergoes treatment and faces his own mortality.
As Funny People proved, it’s hard to make a comedy out of such serious material as a friend dying from a fatal illness. Somehow, however, the script from Will Reiser (who is the basis for Adam) manages to find the comedy without undermining the seriousness of the subject material. Adam’s story is tragic and heartwarming, but also manages to make even the most serious audience laugh and smile at times. The line between the humor and the drama is seamless and incredibly well executed, making the movie a much more fascinating experience than a strict drama would be.
Director Jonathan Levine brings an interesting eye to the camera, particularly in the film’s earlier segments. The directorial approach to establishing Adam’s character and dealing with the discovery of the cancer is really interesting and stands out in the experience of the film. That creative approach tends to fade as the movie progresses, which is probably for the best, making early sequences memorable but without distracting or disrupting things as the story builds.
Gordon-Levitt turns in one of the best performances of his career, although I feel like I say that with just about every movie he is in. Brick is an intriguing hyperstylized performance, The Lookout brought another equally underrated character with depth to life, and (500) Days of Summer brought the opportunity for quite a bit of versatility. Yet, the actor has been overlooked through all of those. Here he does a solid job of bringing to life a character who really is fine in the beginning but has his whole world shaken. He tries to hold on to some stability, but rapidly finds his sanity unraveling. It’s largely an internal performance for the character, but Gordon-Levitt communicates that transition so effectively that when he does finally experience a nervous breakdown of sorts it feels like a natural explosion for a character who has been keeping things bottled for far too long.
While the movie focuses mostly on Gordon-Levitt in telling the story of the journey Adam goes through because of his cancer, many of the supporting performances are fascinating as well. Anjelica Houston plays an incredibly realistic manipulative mother, while Bryce Dallas Howard brings to life the conflicted girlfriend – a superficial character who reveals just how little depth she has as a person over the course of the story. Special credit should be paid to Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, who play other patients that Adam undergoes cancer treatment with, providing the soul and potential outcomes of Adam’s 50/50 chances. Rogen is always Rogen, right down to his trademark laugh (which Adam makes fun of at one point), although Rogen fits well here, possibly because he actually went through similar experiences when Reiser found out about his own cancer. Also not varying much from previous performances is Anna Kendrick, who plays Adam’s inexperienced therapist (he’s only her third patient), although her youth and uncertain confidence also suits her character well.
I suspect many people overlooked 50/50 because they felt it played lightly with the subject material or made fun of cancer patients. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is that 50/50 is possibly one of the best films when it comes to capturing the shock and awe that comes with finding out someone has cancer, and the resulting story is both heartwarming and hearbreaking. Obviously I saw the movie too late for it to fit into any Oscar predictions, but I can predict that it may prove to be one of the Academy’s biggest oversights for 2011.
On the Disc:
Unfortunately I didn’t get a lot of time to check out the special features on the 50/50 disc, especially because I felt like I needed a break after the movie’s emotional roller coaster ride. The film includes a commentary track with Levine, Rogen, and Reiser. It’s a commentary I would be fascinated to listen to, if only to hear how they balance Rogen’s crude humor with the reality that Reiser (and Rogen) survived the real experiences that served as a foundation for the film. The disc also contains a few deleted scenes and three featurettes: “The Story of 50/50,” “Life Inspires Art,” and “Seek and Destroy.”