By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Jonathan Levine’s “50/50,” about a 27-year-old man stricken with a rare spinal cancer, hardly seems a likely source for levity. But while brazenly demonstrating the opposite, it is testament to the fantastic mental balancing act we are capable of when the chips are down. It is both frightening and inspiring.
The emotional odyssey Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam must navigate reminds in part of the heroic rationalization manifested by Roberto Benigni’s Guido Orefice in “Life is Beautiful” (1997). Only here, instead of a Nazi death camp terrorizing the bejesus out of our protagonist, it’s the great unknown and a medical establishment often in disconnect.
And, while for Guido romantic love was his survival instinct’s chief ally, in this case the afflatus is friendship. Seth Rogen as Kyle, smartly transforming the devil-may-care slacker that’s served him so well into a Kiplingesque pal, has Adam’s back, literally and figuratively. Of course he’s not above using the situation to further his womanizing ways.
Such a friend can come in handy, especially after Act #1, Scene #2. In the cold, sterile doctor’s office, an equally chilly physician matter-of-factly rattles off some technical terms. Adam, though certain his ears deceive him, picks up a few words. “But I’m going to be alright, aren’t I?” he asks. The doc shuffles papers. One can never feel more alone.
Thus begins the dreaded process, and what we pray is not our modern day answer to bloodletting. We’re talking chemotherapy and the devastating turmoil it unleashes on body and soul. It also proves a litmus test for Adam’s relationship with Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), the live-in girlfriend who wants to “be there” for him.
Serving as subplot to the tragicomedy is his relationship with Mom, touchingly portrayed by Anjelica Huston. Understandably distraught by the news he hesitatingly relates, what was once just a full plate of troubles for Diane now increases to a veritable buffet. You see, Dad has Alzheimer’s disease. And yes, there is comedy in this film.
The thought of getting laughs from this scenario would on first blush seem crass, until you dip into its very special sort of witty madness. It works on several levels. First off, there’s the thing in us that likes to whistle through the graveyard…to thumb our nose at the inevitable. And then there’s the humor that comes with identifying the hidden truth.
But even more profound is the hopeful, self-satisfied smile the film surfaces…the one that separates us from every other beast on the planet. It’s part and parcel of that ennobling spirit that declares, “I’m human, and by gosh someday one of us is going to wipe this vile thing from the face of the Earth.” But right now, Adam isn’t so sure.
Commiserating with the good buddies he meets where the chemo is administered, the gallows humor holds sway. No punches pulled, it’s the cancer patient’s version of “Beau Geste” (1939)…brave men facing up against the odds. That’s where the “50/50” comes from…the statistical chances that Adam will beat this rap. The three are a fine ensemble.
Philip Baker Hall is Alan, the dour oldster. If good-natured cynicism could conquer the scourge, he’d be cancer-free in no time. Matt Frewer is Mitch, the ever cheerful victim who supplies marijuana-laced treats his wife bakes. Whether or not the weed diminishes the chemo’s side effects, they sure do have a high old time. Sometimes Kyle joins them.
Also supplying succor, or at least really trying hard to, is Anna Kendrick’s Katherine, the hospital’s novitiate therapist assigned to Adam’s case. With both of them inexperienced in the challenge at hand, their ensuing relationship is an innocently engaging series of bicker-filled battles and armistices. To boot, they are opposites in almost every way.
In one comically telling scene, Katherine figures it won’t be unprofessional to offer the non-driving Adam a lift home. The fact that her Volkswagen is totally loaded with empty food wrappers and other sundry garbage isn’t lost on the neat freak. Finally, no longer able to take it, he orders her to pull over and thoroughly cleans out the car. Ah, catharsis.
Thus, unless we’re mistaken, it looks like that new wrinkle now flitting through their association just might be the early signs of sexual tension. Meanwhile, back at the little bungalow Adam rents, we are beginning to see artist/girlfriend Rachael, increasingly daunted by her beau’s illness, in a new light.
It’s all pretty realistic…except it’s really not. Hold this film up next to the real thing and the differences are harshly evident. Still, it’s a gutsy step displaying the optimism it takes to defeat the foe. Cancer is not shudderingly whispered. To the contrary, shouting its message, educating and making jokes, “50/50” bets you 3 to 1 you find its tale uplifting.
“50/50,” rated R, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Jonathan Levine and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick. Running time: 99 minutes
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