50/50 (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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50/50 (2011)

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Hair that is not long for this world. The owner's chances may vary.

The stages of grief are more of a social contract we have agreed upon rather than any sort of legitimate road map to recovery.  Given how broad the emotions are and their expression ill-defined, it's no particular wonder they've gotten such a foothold into treatment rhetoric.  But they still let us play a part, and when our "selves" are threatened with an immediate exit from this lovely sphere of consciousness then blank is the last thing we can be.

Latch onto denial, and at least pretend like you're still here.

50/50 is a cancer story which sees through the layer of storytelling that goes on around the sickness.  Everyone, from the patient to the doctor, is building a story for themselves around the disease.  If it's not something you can pick up and fight then we have to assume some image to place in defiance against the slowly spreading tumor.

This is part of why Kyle's (Seth Rogen) reaction to finding out Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has cancer is so wonderful and sad at the same time.  All Kyle does is ask to see it, and Adam, quite rationally, responds, "Why would I have a picture of it?"  Because now we know what can kill us far more than we used to, the tangible reality needs to be there for so many.  The photograph is proof, the proof means it's something he can help Adam fight, and maybe relieve some of his friend's pain.

But there's no physical thing which can be fought with sickness, so role-play it must be.  Adam is still uncertain of his own role, veering between emotional highs and lows barely even addressed in the now required Kubler-Ross model.  But because he's influenced in another way, and trying to adopt the role of "cancer patient" taught to him by so many movies.

In a film layered with complicated performances, Anna Kendrick's is the most adorable; trying desperately to be the "strong doctor" when really she just wants to be the "strong friend."

Breaking the news to his mother he opens by asking, "Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?"  He has accepted he will play the part of "cancer patient" even before his treatment has begun, shaving his head and trying to give his girlfriend, Rachael, (Bryce Dallas Howard) an easy out.  Still, she's interested in building her own story, playing the role of artist as well as devoted nurse/lover to a good man dying, the perfect way to endear yourself to new people.

I love how everyone, even Adam, utilizes his cancer to tell a story and impress others.  Kyle becomes the doting friend to pick up a girl in a bookstore, his therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick) gets to become the healer, even his doctor gets to keep up the stone facade of professionalism.  It's so easy to see, later, them going back to their loved ones and saying, "Look at this great thing I did today," which would be reprehensible if Adam weren't playing along with it in his own way.

Some of the sitcom-y situations of the film don't quite work.  The improvised bits between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen involving shaving and scar treatment are far too staged and obsessed with bodily functions to be effective.  Part of the reason these moments glare out so badly is the level of dignity surrounding everyone in the most effective scenes.

Death is treated with love, there is no grandstanding, no moments of clarity spilling forth in 5-minute monologues.  We see humans, sick, in love and loved, accept the tragedy.  The only rage comes from a terrifying moment of clarity from Adam, in a blood curdling scene from Gordon-Levitt, that cuts through the images and gets straight to the pain.

Her Alzheimer's-afflicted husband speaks to writing which is a bit on the nose about what Adam is doing to his mom ("So she's got a husband who can't talk and a son who won't?").  Still, Angelica Houston gets some very painful laughs out of her attempt to love cancer out of Adam.

As a director, Jonathan Levine doesn't push too hard for effect, but lets Adam's world speak through his eyes.  Of course everything is gray, he has spinal cancer, and the only source of color comes from the women he loves.  Fascinating, then, how they handle the transformation of Rachel.  Bryce Dallas Howard does something very tricky with her performance as Levine slowly drains the color from her.

Howard has to both be in love with Adam, in love with the idea of being in love with Adam, self-satisfied with being the one who stays through the sickness, and secretly wishing it would all end.  All this is required of her in the same breath and the way she twists her smile, barely fights back tears, and unhesitatingly opens her arms while looking away speak to all of these emotions.  I've never been impressed by her before, but to make someone this complex understandable is not an easy thing to do, and she sustains with aplomb.

50/50 isn't one of the greats.  An amazing supporting set of characters is shuttled in to make a point then quickly shuttled off and some of the attempts at humor nearly stop the film dead at some points.  But it's honest in a way that never strives to be brutal or unyielding of the realities of the disease.

At least some of us get to play the role of "loved" in the meantime.  Just be careful of who you choose to be.

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50/50 (2011)

Directed by Jonathan Levine.
Written by Will Reiser.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Mixing humor and painful subject matter is, naturally, very difficult. The beauty of this movie is that it does so with ease, especially with such good actors in these roles as well. Good review

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