I’ve been suffering from a spot of review congestion brought about by having lots of different things to write reviews for and not enough time to write. All I can do is keep plodding on and bash them out one by one. Reviews for Mattimeo and those three animated films I bought on DVD are coming and yes, so is that all important verdict on Skyward Sword but for now we’ll have to make do with one of the best films of the year.
I was still recovering from food poisoning when I saw this film, once again with my good buddy Ryan, and my relatively delicate state had an unforeseen effect of heightening the immersion since 50/50 is a film about illness, specifically cancer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a twenty-seven-year-old neat-freak with everything to live for, he’s got a good job working at a radio station with one-track minded buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen), a steady girlfriend and his own cool little pad but after seeing a doctor about back pains learns he has a rare form of spinal cancer from which there is a 50/50 survival rate, and, as you can imagine, his life changes.
That phrase I used there ‘as you can imagine’ is critical. One of the most powerful effects this film achieves is that it makes you imagine what it would be like coping with cancer in a way you might not choose to normally. In my case I think this effect was probably increased by my own weakened condition. I’m not going to compare food poisoning to cancer but I suffered some very unpleasant long-term digestive health problems as a result of a previous bout of gastroenteritis (yeah, breaking out the medical terms now) that required specialist treatment and I survived a very serious, life-threatening illness when I was a kid so I understand what it’s like to be really unwell and the reality that 50/50 offers is so strong it’s scary. The film really focuses hard on Adam, there’s barely a scene he’s not in and we follow his journey through chemotherapy and how his relationships are affected in plenty of detail before building up to the inevitable make or break moment. It’s a beautifully measured film, perfectly balanced to portray an accurate and painfully believable depiction of a killer disease without getting too depressing.
Hollywood tends to use cancer as the perfect platform on which to build a good weepie but this is actually a comedy full of bawdy lines, awkward social interaction and amusing observations. Kyle’s reaction to his buddy’s illness is to try and make the most of it and get both of them laid while Adam’s overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston), already looking after her Alzheimer’s suffering husband begins mollycoddling her son even further. Then there’s Anna Kendrick’s therapist whose greenness at her job (Adam is only her third patient ever) makes for some amusingly awkward moments. It’s a funny film to be sure and Rogen gets most of the best lines but the comedy never once trivialises the seriousness of the disease or strays into inappropriateness. The middle part of the film contains plenty of scenes that give us a break from the bleakness of Adam’s situation and it’s a good thing too because as the ending approaches the film becomes almost unbearably emotional. I honestly can’t remember the last time I got this emotionally involved in a film and this is thanks largely to Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose immense likeability and wonderfully human performance make it effortless to get behind Adam, I found myself desperately hoping he doesn’t die.
There are a few faults, the biggest of which surrounds Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Rachael, Adam’s girlfriend who tries to do the right thing but blows it. Howard does about as good a job as you can reasonably expect playing a thankless role as a character who receives no sympathy from the script despite being in a horrible situation. True, what she does is far from heroic but considering how well-balanced the script is otherwise her character’s treatment feels rather unfair. Other than this there are a couple of moments that don’t feel natural, such as Adam’s mother’s initial reaction to the news of his cancer and the doctor who breaks the news to Adam doesn’t seem to give a toss. But these are all fairly minor quibbles in an otherwise overwhelmingly well-executed movie.
The supporting performances are all note-perfect, Anna Kendrick is sweet and very funny as Adam’s therapist Katherine, Anjelica Huston nails the concerned mother role but it’s Seth Rogen’s performance that is the most interesting, which brings me to how the script came to be written. Will Reiser was himself struck down by cancer in his twenties and Seth Rogen was his real-life best bud who stuck by him through it. The script is based on his experience and Rogen is effectively playing himself in the story which adds a huge amount of maturity to his performance. He’s still full of profanity and bawdiness but this time it’s accompanied by a sensitive humanity that is clearly described by what must have been a harrowing ordeal for him playing the role for real. One rather touching moment when Adam drops Kyle off drunk at his apartment and discovers something surprising illustrates how the character has been written to give the actor more to do than his usual spiel.
50/50 may not be the most outright hilarious film I’ve ever seen (and given the subject matter how could it?) but it is nonetheless the best comedy I’ve seen this year because it treats its theme with maturity and grace barring a couple of stumbles and I’ve long been of the opinion that poignancy is all the more powerful when delivered alongside lightness (Blackadder Goes Forth anyone?). Needless to say the film triumphs.
A thoughtful, funny boy’s weepie that will really get you thinking about how you would react to the same situation and deliver a karate chop to your heartstrings. One of the best films of the year.