A silver lining in the cloud of cancer
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 30, 2011
Book in the bathroom.
That's my new private shorthand for a scene in a movie that, with economy, subtlety and superb tonal inflection, sums up what the entire movie is about. It's the scene that seals the deal, sticks the landing and makes a good film great. It's the scene in "50/50" that nails it - narratively, emotionally and aesthetically.
If you've seen the recently released "Restless," starring Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper, you may think you've seen enough cancer-in-the-Pacific-Northwest movies. But "50/50" takes the hackneyed convention of illness-driven melodrama and reinvigorates it with honesty, clear-eyed compassion and unsentimental wit.
Written by Will Reiser based on his own experience with cancer, "50/50" stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a mild-mannered NPR producer living in Seattle who is such a rule-follower that he even stops for the "Don't Walk" sign while he's jogging. "I don't smoke, I don't drink," he says disbelievingly when he gets his diagnosis. "I recycle."
As Adam arrives on that far shore where chemotherapy, debilitating symptoms and looming mortality become his new reality, he discovers whom in his life he can count on. Will it be his feisty but self-involved mother, played with bracing ferocity by Anjelica Huston? Or his artist girlfriend? The fact that the latter is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, recently seen as the witchy racist debutante in "The Help" might send up a red flag. "It's an energy thing," she lamely explains when she declines to accompany Adam to his chemo treatments. (It's difficult to tell at this point whether Dallas Howard is wince-inducing because of her self-regarding performances or the characters she seems to be stuck playing.)
Then there's Adam's best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who makes Michael Stipe and Voldemort jokes when Adam preemptively shaves his head and seeks to buck up his pal by invoking Lance Armstrong: "He keeps getting it!" he says cheerfully.
Such is the low-key, irreverent wit that propels "50/50" (the title refers to Adam's chances), which was in part inspired by Rogen's own friendship with Reiser during the writer's illness (he's now in remission). Unlike the twee, aestheticized suffering of "Restless," "50/50," which was directed by Jonathan Levine, doesn't seek to pretty up the grim realities of cancer under thrift-shop-chic leopard coats or comforting fantasies. Instead, it offers a refreshingly frank glimpse of a world too often distorted by Hollywood for its own ends, with Gordon-Levitt's even-tempered Adam serving as the ideal guide through both its terrors and improbable gifts. (Perhaps the only allowance "50/50" makes to cosmetic license is letting Adam keep his eyebrows.)
Chief among a fatal illness's unexpected silver linings, "50/50" suggests, are the friends and loved ones who show up, however inexpertly. Anna Kendrick brings the same stiff-necked primness to the role of a therapist assigned to advise Adam, a woman so young she doesn't get his "Doogie Howser" reference and whose strained attempts at comforting him never manage to connect as intended. But the most clumsy by far is Kyle, who battles his own panic by deciding to turn Adam's disease into a babe magnet ("It's your hook!" he insists before the two plunge into the singles scene at a bar).
The question of just who, if anyone, will truly show up for Adam turns out to be the fulcrum of "50/50," a movie that barely makes filmgoers notice that they've come to care deeply, not only about whether Adam makes it, but for the friends he makes in chemo, too.
And it's that question - made more urgent by a medical crisis but universal at its core - that the filmmakers answer so simply and movingly with that book in the bathroom. The moment encapsulates everything that makes "50/50" so good, from Reiser's unforced writing and Levine's astute direction to the lead players' appealing, un-showy performances and Michael Giacchino's sensitive musical score.
Considering that any one of those elements could have scuttled its fragile mix of drama, comedy and life-and-death stakes, "50/50" beats the odds with modest, utterly winning ease.
Contains profanity, sexual content and some drug use.