50/50

Recommended. A lovely little film whose pathos renders its admitted shortcomings largely insignificant.

50 50Director Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is an engaging, at times emotionally powerful film that is able to overcome weaknesses that would have significantly marred a less evocative movie. Without question, 50/50 rises on the inherent charms of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a 27-year old who has suddenly been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. As the title would suggest, his odds are iffy at best, and Gordon-Levitt is quietly superb as he wrestles with the prospects of his imminent mortality.

Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, an employee of a public radio station who is shy, unassuming and somewhat eccentric. He’s never learned to drive, which makes his dependence on others all the more glaring.

To complicate matters, he has been living with his girlfriend in a relationship that was running on fumes before his cancer diagnosis. Bryce Dallas Howard makes the most of an unsympathetic role as Rachel, giving considerable heart and soul to an otherwise selfish bitch in much the same way as she did with her incredible performance as the villainess in this year’s spectacular The Help.

Anna Kendrick, who shot to fame with her role as George Clooney’s uptight sidekick in Up In the Air (2009), plays Katherine, a novice counselor who takes on Gordon-Levitt as a patient. Given that he is only her third patient, their uncomfortable, stumbling counseling sessions are both touching and genuinely amusing.

However, what really causes 50/50 to bloom are a series of small, supporting performances by Anjelica Houston, Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall. Ms. Houston is positively wonderful as the grief stricken, somewhat alienated mother of Gordon-Levitt, whose life has in many ways become a living hell given the fact that her husband is suffering from Alzheimers. There are some electric moments that will rip at your heart as a mother and son slowly find their way back into each other’s arms as his prospects for recovery dim.

Mr. Frewer and Baker Hall play two older, laconic chemotherapy patients who befriend Gordon-Levitt during his treatments. They are refreshingly profane and profoundly human, and the scenes where they use pot together are to be treasured.

As an aside, I would be remiss if I didn’t make one further comment about Mr. Baker Hall, a venerable character actor who has appeared in too many films to mention. However, I would strongly suggest that you hunt down the film You Kill Me (2007) where he played a mob boss of Ben Kingsley’s alcoholic hit man. It is a profoundly funny as well as a quietly moving dark comedy, and it remains a minor tragedy that so few have actually seen it.

While I have already alluded to the fact that the dramatic force of 50/50 overcomes its flaws, they still need to be pointed out. Though Seth Rogen is again the likeable lunk that he so wonderfully brought to life in such prior roles as the pot smoking process server in Pineapple Express (2008) and the voice of B.O.B., the one-eyed blob of comic jello in Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), I fear that I am not alone when I say that he has gone to that comic well once too often. Though an actor should never be criticized for playing to his strengths, the fact is that Rogen brings exactly the same persona to every role.

Thus, it should be no surprise that here he plays Kyle, the close friend of our cancer patient whose mind is always on his dick. He is as brash as he is brainless, and he seemingly has no goals in life other than getting loaded and hopefully nailing some poor female whose senses have been deadened by too much alcohol.

In many ways, he is the personification of that great line by Jonah Hill in Superbad (2007), where Hill tells his friends that they absolutely have to go to a certain party as there will be loads of intoxicated, beautiful girls attending. In a comment for the ages, he sagely observes that several of them will end up having regrettable sex with someone where they wake up the next morning and say, “How could I have made that mistake?” The wide-eyed Mr. Hill then looks at his buddies and says, “We could be that mistake.”

And that sums up Rogen’s character here. Sure, he is funny at times, but he remains little more than a vulgar teenager in arrested development. To put it another way, if you were suffering from cancer and he was your only true friend, the prospects of death would lose some of its sting.

The other real drawback of 50/50 is the inevitable relationship that you know is developing ever so reluctantly between Kendrick and Gordon-Levitt. While it is sweet and engaging, the simple fact is that you know she is a therapist and that any such relationship would violate the most fundamental code of her profession.

No matter how endearing and affecting, and again let me say that it is, the point is that you have a therapist becoming personally involved with a patient, particularly a patient in the midst of an emotional breakdown. Regardless of how you may view it, this created an uncomfortable paradox for me as I watched a film that I really liked while simultaneously condemning a central premise.

However, the bottom line is that 50/50 is an arresting little film that I anticipate will move you to tears on more than one occasion. The soundtrack is spot on and the early scenes of Gordon-Levitt jogging around Stanley Park in Vancouver give you a brief glimpse of one of the great city parks in North America. There is simply a lot to like about this film, so enjoy.