Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Love: 50/50

I’ve found trying to concisely appraise 50/50 pretty difficult.  Each time I’ve tried, up until now, has involved a sloppy mess of a first paragraph attempting to throw the cancer dramedy up against any number of its ‘young (or youngish) people suffering’ counterparts.  I haven’t seen Gus Van Sant’s Restless yet, so mainly I keep bumping up against Love Story and Love and Other Drugs as my most recently viewed entries in the “this shouldn’t be happening” subgenre.  Those two films, to put it bluntly, sucked.   They wear their tragedy like a sadistic merit badge and attempt to solicit your tears  via cloyingly saccharine falsehoods and the crimes not only of dying too young, but of leaving behind a widowed lover like a lost puppy.  50/50 doesn’t do that.  Or, that is, it doesn’t do it in the way we’re used to.   While its young protagonist faces the dizzyingly surprising odds of not making it to his 28th birthday, the film neither stoops to snatching at your emotions or dumbly launches on a feel-good “I’m going to conquer my bucket list” adventure.  We don’t see the power of positive thinking, we simply see the process of being, well, a sometimes optimistic but generally depressed lump.

The film focuses on Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a smart guy with the sort of life many a young hipster will covet: public radio producing gig, artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), neat little house in Seattle; that is, until a chance visit to a doctor finds him discovering that he’s been unknowingly suffering from a spinal cancer.  The news is a blow not only to Adam, but to his family and friends.  His mother (Angelica Huston) immediately announces her intention to move in, his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is angered and dumbstruck, his co-workers fatalistically compare Adam’s situation with those of other people in their lives at an odd party in Adam’s honor.   Everything is crisp, concise, uncomplicated in its complications.  The plot flows effortlessly.  We tag along as Adam begins chemotherapy, as he walks stoned through the hospital halls, as he waits for his girlfriend to pick him up, as he begins therapy with Katherine, an awkward 24-year old doctoral candidate (Anna Kendrick).   The film finds the humorous moments in what would normally be dour.  Everything is cheery when you’re stoned.  Shaving your head before the hair falls out if hilarious if you use the razor your friend uses for his balls.  

Though Adam’s suffering is downplayed (from what I understand, anyone who’s encountered cancer will tell you the symptoms here are not presented in full), we don’t need to be shown everything to understand that this is horrible.  What we see instead of an outpouring of love is the way people try to cope and the loneliness that results when people can’t.  Adam’s friend Kyle tries to put a spin on his friend’s illness.  He distracts them both by making it a game, a tactic to get them both laid.  Rachael, Adam’s girlfriend, tries to be supportive, but isn’t prepared to take on the responsibilities that come with watching a casual lover falter.   As his situation changes, Adam becomes defined by his illness.  It’s part of him, a constant topic of conversation, and something no one seems able to stop talking about.   By the film’s climax, the old Adam is already dead in many ways and the present Adam mourns that loss daily.  Gordon-Levitt is remarkably effective in this role.   He has a sort of boy next door aura about him that makes him appealing and sincere.  We see all the manifestations of his pain and we want him to make it.   If he feels authentic, that’s because he is.  Adam is a character based in reality.  The film’s writer, Will Reiser is a real-life friend of Seth Rogen’s who did, in fact, find himself diagnosed with the very same ailment.  While 50/50 presents a fictionalized account, there’s little doubt it remains very much his (or their) story.   While I’ve never subscribed to the “write what you know” approach to storytelling, on this particular topic it seems ‘being there’ is a valuable asset.   50/50 manages  an even-keeled humanity in all elements.  The comedy never tries too hard, but instead comes through in unexpected ways as the film makes the best of what Adam himself can’t see in the moment.   It’s a comforting nightmare that finds a bit of good with the bad and weaves them both into something easily consumable.     

1 comment:

  1. SUPER LOVED THIS FILM, amazing review, and yes it does everything BUT be corny or cliche...

    and i will always have a girl crush on Angelica Huston ALWAYS


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