Jonathan Levine‘s 50/50 (Summit, 9.30) is an exceptionally honest, no-punches-pulled, very honorably acted adult drama about a young guy (Joseph Gordon Levitt) grappling with The Big C. It’s seasoned with occasional laughs, for sure, but there’s no way this is a light mood comedy, as the 50/50 trailers have implied. And I mean that with the utmost respect.
Based on screenwriter Will Reiser‘s brush with cancer a few years ago, 50/50 is about an
obviously “difficult” subject, markeing-wise. A significant portion of the public (i.e., people over 40 or 45 or 50 who think of films solely as recreational entertainments that are going to make them feel good and giddy in the same way that a Quaalude or a tab of Ecstasy is going to make them feel that way) is going to presume that this will be a downish, difficult or unpleasant thing to sit through and avoid it like the plague.
A bright, fairly-with-it 40ish woman with whom I discussed 50/50 a couple of weeks ago was instantly repelled, I could tell.
The irony is that 50/50 is a straight-dealing, occasionally amusing drama about real human beings dealing with a real-deal issue — the kind of movie that I live for. Cheers to Levine and Reiser for making something very unusual and in fact exceptional. The writing is true and honest and clear. And Levine’s hand is straight and to the point and unfettered and not in the least pretentious. He serves the material well, as any good director should.
Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer — every last performer (including the guy who plays the doctor who delivers the bad news) delivers like a champ.
This is obviously Joseph Gordon Levitt’s most complete and wholehearted performance since 500 Days of Summer. I’ll never forgive Rogen for The Green Hornet but what a relief to see him in a really good film again. Howard’s unsympathetic character is well written and totally believable — not an admirable person, but that’s what a lot of people are like (i.e., scared of cancer, unable to cope in a supportive way). Kendrick gives her best performance ever, I feel. Huston’s best acting since…what, Prizzi’s Honor? The Grifters? (Her role isn’t big enough to really be compared to her ’80s work, but you know what I mean.)
The ending doesn’t tell you everything’s totally okay again, but it feels positive and right and optimistic, given what’s happened and given that Levitt’s hair has begun to grow back, and that’s how it should be.
The theme, I think, is something along the lines of “when the chips are down, you’ll find out who people really are.” There’s a line is Undefeated, the football doc that I saw a month ago, about how “football doesn’t build character, it reveals character.” That’s clearly what cancer does also, if this film is any kind of honest representation of what the experience is like, and I believe it almost certainly is that.
But is it a kind of “comedy”, as the press notes say and the trailers have more or less suggested? Despite Rogen’s best efforts (and they are considerable and highly appealing) and despite the very welcome humor that pops through when it needs to or ought to if the film is going to be at all natural and real, the answer is an emphatic NO. The answer to the Summit marketers is, due respect, “bless your hearts and souls but take the needle out of your arm.”
All mature art is mixture of drama and comedy. Any film that insists on being a drama-drama or a comedy-comedy doesn’t get this. Life is always a mixture of the two, so naturally 50/50 is flecked or flavored with guy and gallows humor here and there plus one or two anxious-mom jokes and/or chemo jokes and/or jokes about being in denial,etc., but there’s no way in hell anyone could honestly call it a “funny” movie, or a “comedic” or even half-comedic one, really.
The most you could say is that it’s amusingly jaunty at times. It’s good humored and good natured when the material calls for that…when it feels right and true. And any critic who knows quality-level filmmaking when he/she sees it is going to recognize that humor is definitely a part of the package, definitely an element. But the Summit marketers are in a major denial mode if they think they can get away with calling this a kind of comedy. They should put a lid on that here and now…just put it to bed.