Mark Reviews Movies

50/50 (2011)

50/50 (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jonathan Levine

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 9/30/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 29, 2011

In downplaying the effects of disease upon the patient, 50/50 finds some genuinely affecting moments in exploring the support structure surrounding him. What Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a character with an experience based loosely on screenwriter Will Reiser's own medical woes) suffers after he learns he has a malignant growth on his spine is ultimately secondary to how to those around him react to the news. The possibility of death hangs over them, and if the film cannot quite bring itself to acknowledge it as a probability, it is only because each and every character is living, for the most part, in a state of denial.

That is a wholly natural reaction, because it is that with which they (and we, in general) are most comfortable when dealing with a degenerative disease, slowly eating away at the person they love. He is still there; the odds, no matter how stacked against him they might be, still offer the chance of hope. The time for actual grieving is somewhere down the road, and the only question is how far ahead that might be. The fear that comes with that realization can be debilitating, and there's a real strength to these characters in Adam's life that makes us feel in line with the movie's overall optimism in the face of a dreadful situation.

At first, Adam's life is relatively ideal. He has a steady job working in a field he loves, editing pieces for the local public radio station. He works with his best friend since time immemorial Kyle (Seth Rogen), a man with only women on his mind, and is starting to live an increasingly domestic life with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). He's surprised—but in a nice way—to notice more and more of belongings winding up in his house. He jogs regularly and takes such precautions as waiting for the light to turn at the crosswalk, even when there's no traffic and after another jogger run right across the road.

So when, after going to what he thinks is a routine doctor's appointment to find out the cause of the pain in his back, he learns he has a rare type of cancer, he simply cannot believe that such is the case with his healthy lifestyle. Rachael, after Adam gives her the opportunity to leave with no questions asked, is determined to stand by her man, and Kyle is relieved to learn that the survival rate of the disease is 50 percent. Younger people—or at least the famous ones—always get over cancer, he assures his best friend. Adam refuses to tell his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) for fear that she will try to control his battle as much as she can, and, when he finally tells her and his father (Serge Houde), who himself is suffering from Alzheimer's, she indeed insists that she move in with him. He's glad to convince her otherwise.

Reiser's script is attentive to the ways these people try to help and remarkably finds humor in how stymied they are in the attempt. Kyle asserts the need to go about life as usual, though the farewell party he holds at the office unintentionally turns into a sort of living funeral, with his co-workers talking as if they will never see Adam again. The way in which Kyle takes advantage of being the caring friend in the eyes of others starts here, as well, as he talks a little too much about his role in Adam's recovery to a female co-worker.

Rachael is a problematic character among them, starting off a loving, if uncertain in how to act, pillar of support and gradually growing distant until she leaves Adam waiting outside the hospital for hours after one of his chemotherapy sessions. There's truth here at face value, though Reiser adds a harsh turn to her motivation for becoming aloof that doesn't fit with the milieu of understanding he establishes with the rest of the characters. She eventually becomes an almost villainous figure, twisting the knife when Adam is at his weakest.

Balancing that is Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a 24-year-old therapist assigned to Adam. He is only her third patient, and their relationship allows Adam to work out the emotions he mostly represses in front of the others. She is unsure of simple techniques, like how to incorporate physical contact in her sessions, and he is convinced she is too young to really understand him. As the trust (and with it, somewhat unfortunately but admittedly sweetly, the romantic feelings) builds, Adam lets out the doubts that his recovery will succeed. A pair of fellow patients in chemo (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) offers a no-nonsense reality check for him that leads to the only scene in the film where Adam confronts the very real prospect of dying from this disease.

The final act of 50/50, which builds toward a last-chance procedure, allows for this reality to set in. The film's most touching scene has no direct interaction between characters but instead simply notices a dog-eared and highlighted book that represents the extent of one character's dedication to Adam (The equally moving follow-up emphasizes not what the two say but what they cannot bring themselves to say to each other). There's a simple elegance to way Reiser and director Jonathan Levine tie these bonds.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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