Friday, July 13, 2012
Cancer. With Laughs.
Director: Jonathan Levine
Written by: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall.
Running time: 100 min.
"That doesn't make any sense, though. I mean, I don't smoke, I don't drink...I recycle." - Adam's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) response to being told that he has a tumour in his spine. We go through life believing that nothing bad will ever happen to us if we do right by the world, because we don't deserve it. Unfortunately, a fact of life is that we'll all be linked to someone who has had to battle cancer, whether they beat it or succumb to it. Maybe it'll be us. Cancer doesn't care if you recycle, or if you're the best person on Earth. For Adam, he is only 27 when he's told that he has the illness. And while he can't make sense of it, his situation allows him to make sense of himself and the people around him. 50/50, Jonathan Levine's follow-up to the brilliant stoner comedy The Wackness, isn't My Sister's Keeper, though. It isn't out to turn the waterworks on or soak any tissues. Instead, it does the inevitable and brings some laughs to an otherwise sad story. Most of all, it puts a new spin on a topic that is used in films to make you feel guilty for being alive. There's no guilt to be felt with this one.
50/50 is based on the real-life experience of Will Reiser, who was beat cancer a few years back and decided to translate his journey to the screen. Coincidentally, Seth Rogen was there to help him through those tough times. In the film he takes the role of Kyle, who tries to make Adam's experience somewhat easier to deal with and warn him away from a cheating girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), along with providing a bit of medicinal marijuana. Kyle is the comic heart of the movie, as he isn't the one bursting into tears every time he looks at his best friend. He's the one who is trying to restore a bit of normalcy to Adam's life that has now been thrown out of kilter. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn't. What Kyle does is give a very realistic portrayal of coping. Kyle shows that there is only so much that other people can do for those in need. Nobody knows exactly what other people are thinking, so they don't know exactly what to say and when to say it. They'll never be able to imagine what it is like to be in the other person's shoes. Even if they can't cure you, if you get the right friend, they'll make your situation easier. Adam may not be responsive to every single one of Kyle's gestures of friendship, but their relationship is a strong one. On the surface, we get a few laughs out of the pair. However, deep down, they are probably what Rick was alluding to in Casablanca - a beautiful friendship, indeed.
Kyle isn't the only one who shows a wonderful portrayal of coping with the effects of someone else's illness. Everyone around Adam has very different reactions to his situation, which really bring out the best and worst in people. His girlfriend, Rachael, tries her best to stand by him, but she's unsure of just how she can do that, which leads her to seek solace in the arms of some "Jesus-looking dude". His mother (Anjelica Huston), who already has a husband that has Alzheimer's, has an extremely strong reaction to it, instantly offering to move in with Adam. For a very long time, Adam resists the help of his mother, only to come to the realisation that a mother's love is better than anything else on this Earth. Also affected is Katherine (Anna Kendrick), his therapist. Adam expects to have a therapist who has been in the business of consoling people like him for decades, but Katherine has only had two patients before him, and doesn't exactly know how she should deal with Adam. She brings the romantic strain to the table, but for once, it doesn't feel contrived at all. Adam and Katherine's relationship is awkward, as she's not entirely sure of how to handle the situation, but unlike Rachael, she'll stick by him. Finally, Adam is joined by his chemotherapy buddies Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall), who don't sugar coat the situation but do offer plenty of cookies filled with weed. Through all of these people, we see just how one person can affect several others, and discover what they're really like. It's situations like these that magnify the people around you, and what they're really like deep down. What these people don't do, though, is become caricatures with heavy-handed intentions to show exaggerated melodrama.
What about Adam himself, though? It was clear to see that Reiser didn't try to glamourise Adam in any way. He isn't a fluid character. He doesn't just decide that he's okay with his situation, or he's feeling down because of it. Sometimes he feels good, other times he feels at war with the world. He's confused because there isn't any how-to guide for having cancer. He can only but take each day as it comes, and hope for the best. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is stellar, especially considering that he picked up the role only two days before principal photography began (replacing James McAvoy). He nails every emotion, bringing vulnerability, anger, sadness, but also admirable acceptance to Adam's situation. When he breaks down, quite a way into the film, we not only see how tired Adam is, but how Gordon-Levitt manages to put all of the little fragments of his experience into that catharsis. He brings the true beating heart to the film, making us pray that he'll be okay, but also smile and laugh with him along the way.
A comedy about cancer? It can happen. Just don't expect to come out dry-eyed because you've been laughing so hard. 50/50 blends humour with sadness so well that it can't be defined to one genre. Unless there was a genre called 'life'.
What I got: