Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whole, Not Half and Half

If I were to put together a list of the movies I was most anticipating this fall, it would not be a long one. Sure, there are the big budget blockbusters that are certain to entertain, such as the remake of The Thing, or the mythological warfare film The Immortals. But most of the high-class movies vying for potential award nominations are not making the compelling argument that they deserve to be seen, as I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to Martha Marcy May Marlene, Anonymous, Like Crazy, The Rum Diary, J Edgar, Melancholia, and The Descendants. There will be bad movies as well, many of which I will be readily avoiding like the plague. Even those that fall in the middle are no sure thing, and many I'll see not because they demand attention, but because they're all that is. 50/50 was definitely a film that fell in that category, a dramedy focusing on possibly the most unfunny topic out there. Sure, it sports a cast that was itself 50/50, including the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick yet the film also harbors the eyeroll-inducing Seth Rogen in a major supporting role. Sure, played right this could have been among the best films of the year but come on; SETH ROGEN!! Sure, he can occasionally be a positive influence in good films, such as his non-corporeal role in this year's Paul, but I still had a hard time believing that he would do anything besides drag a title like this one down from its full potential.

"And how does starring in a film with Seth Rogen make you feel?"
Adam's (Gordon-Levitt) life is fairly steady. He's got a steady job, a steady girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend who cares for him (Rogen) and he exercises regularly. Overall things are just fine. But Adam's latest doctor visit has forced his life down an unexpected road, as he learns he has a rare form of aggressive spinal cancer. With odds of surviving the disease 50/50, Adam's life and relationships quickly unravel as he struggles to exist in this new, barely survivable phase of his life. He finds no solace in his friends and family and depressed about his chances of still being here when all is said and done.

This is what we call "Bad Idea #1"
50/50 is not your typical "cancer flick", most notably because it's not entirely fiction. The film was in fact based on the real-life crisis of screenwriter Will Reiser, who was similarly diagnosed in his early twenties. Reiser obviously takes liberally from his own experiences, from chemotherapy sessions to the intensity that such a disease brings to the relationships between the afflicted and their family and friends. This isn't an overly sappy sob-fest or an inspirational tour de force, but a story told straight without need of epic dramatic flourishes. There are a few glossed-over or ommitted details (how many chemo patinets keep their eyebrows in real life, I wonder?), it still manages to get most right. There's something raw and stripped down about this, and it makes for a more compelling dialogue about life and living. We are told, and we believe, that having cancer is more than enough of a plot to follow.

Three cheers for medicinal marijuana!
Of course it doesn't hurt the telling when you've got the best cast available for the job. While I'm sure James McAvoy would have been great in the lead role (it was his before he had to back out for personal reasons), but it's difficult now to envision anyone besides Gordon-Levitt and his swiftly-rising star as the courageous and ever-shifting Adam. Adam has to cover a lot of ground as a character, not only affected by his condition but by the changing world around him. Gordon-Levitt is uniquely suited to this task, as he can convey more dialogue to the audience merely by his facial expressions and body language than most people can do by speaking aloud. It's a shame 50/50's somewhat juvenile nature will probably prevent it from attaining top tier status, as there was enough here I thought to make an argument for this fine performer as the year's best actor. The crew around him are no slouches however, as director Jonathan Levine shows that he really knew what he was doing putting this group together. Anna Kendrick once again stuns as Adam's student therapist, drawing amusement from the audience as she stumbles through emotional hoops to try and break through Adam's defenses. This may not be a far cry from her breakthrough role of the young Natalie Keener in Up in the Air, but since she's still charming enough to be cute and new enough for the acting to not be old hat, it works perfectly. Bryce Dallas Howard gives us yet another reason not to like her, though in this case it's because she's so good as making us hate her character, Adam's emotionally-distant girlfriend Rachael. It's only a small role, but the daughter of director Ron proves that she can be used effectively in the correct roles, usually the smaller the better. Furthermore, Anjelica Huston is both amazing and almost unrecognizable as Adam's mother Diane, an overly-emotive and smothering matriarch who was already dealing with her husband's Alzheimer's problems. This is one of the characters revered by the filmmakers, as the dynamic of Diane's and Adam's relationship throughout is one of two that are pivotal. The other is the one between Adam and his best friend Kyle. I'm shocked to be saying this twice in one year, but Rogen proves to be compelling and fun to watch unlike ever before. Though 90% of his performance is just like everything you've seen before from him, there is a certain otherness and honesty to his work here. It probably stems from experience: Rogen played much the same character in real life when Reiser was diagnosed. The result is an above average performance and a cast in which even the most likely flaw emerges clean and sparkling.

Gordon-Levitt's eyebrows are saying "Get the hell out"
After enjoying the movie as a whole for the first 80 minutes, something strange happened. It's often said that I am emotional and cry at the drop of a hat, but I don't believe I've ever broken down and cried while watching a movie in the theater before. The sheer emotion of the film's final moments are almost too much to bear however, and I'm certain most people would have reacted in the same manner. 50/50 is a completely honest, sometimes brutal and thankfully uplifting tale in which we are told that sometimes the best moments of our lives might be brought on by our worst disasters. For a movie I wasn't even sure I wanted to watch, it was quite a surprise to clock it in at #3 for 2011. That might seem a little low, even to me, but the line dividing 50/50, Drive and Moneyball is so thin that any of them could be the top movie this year. With a weak-looking winter field ahead, there's a good chance that these three could still be the top three come January. Until then, they're all must-sees and each worth the price however you invite them inside.

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