It is not easy to mix comedy with tragedy. Even Oscar-winning movies like “As Good As It Gets” had difficulty finding the right balance. “50/50” actually bests “As Good As It Gets” in a few respects, but rhythm eludes the movie from the very beginning. It hits all the right emotional chords, but it hits them like they’re targets in a drive-by shooting, fleeing the scene before the audience has had a chance to survey the damage and contemplate what’s just happened. In spite of this, “50/50” is a very entertaining and touching movie. With a different balance of love and death, though, it could have been something special.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, happy Seattleite who works as a reporter for public radio and has something sweet going with new girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). His back has been bothering him though, and when he finally sees a doctor about it, the prognosis is not what he expected: he has cancer, and it’s in an all but inoperable spot. Adam begins chemotherapy, and at first Rachael is supportive, while his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) wants to nurse him back to health as if he’s still a toddler. Adam is, understandably, an emotional cripple, and it doesn’t help matters that his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) sees Adam’s condition as the perfect angle for Adam to manipulate women into sleeping with him. Worse, Adam has super-cute newbie therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) at his disposal to discuss what he’s going through, but refuses to do so, since it would involve accepting that he has cancer and might die.
Think of a Judd Apatow raunch-com and a tearjerker shuffled together like a deck of cards, and that will give you an idea of what the emotional journey of “50/50” feels like. The script’s dialogue and character development are strong enough to temporarily mask this problem, but director Jonathan Levine seems hell-bent on making the movie look more indie than indie, and after a while his direction begins to work against the story. There is the handheld shaky cam at odd moments, the out-of focus shots during Adam’s pot trip, and a Radiohead song. Please.
It’s only after you’ve had a chance to digest the film as a whole that the depth and nuance of Levitt’s performance reveals itself. From the moment he receives the bad news, his emotional responses are all wrong, veering primarily between numbness and denial while choosing curious (read: inappropriate) moments to lash out. Best of all, Levitt keeps things in low gear and saves the histrionics for a well-timed meltdown in the third act. Rogen, is, well, Rogen, the foul-mouthed lunkhead with a good heart. Howard, on the other hand, has the deck stacked against her from the beginning; she’s put in an impossible position that no new girlfriend would ever survive. Adam is right to feel the way he does, but his vehemence is a little extreme considering he, as he readily admits, gave her an out. Yes, the script is based on the life of screenwriter Will Reiser (a friend of Rogen’s), and it may have happened this way, but these kinds of stories are much more interesting when the hero is forced to make the difficult choice over the easy one.
Wisely, the movie saves its bullets for key moments, and does an effective job of showing multiple sides to all of the main characters (again, except for Rachael). This is a smart move, because it keeps the audience from getting a jump on the protagonist about what will happen next, but that also produces moments of frustration. Reiser is clearly a smart guy and went through some bad stuff, but he also has to know that there is a better, more incredible version of his story out there, waiting to be told. That is what “50/50” should have been, the more fantastical version of his life story. As it is, it’s sad, and raunchy, and rife with manufactured conflict.(3.5 / 5)
This originally ran September 12, 2011 on Bullz-Eye.com.