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Film Review: 50/50

50/50 (2011; Directed by Jonathan Levine)

If 50/50 is out to prove anything, it’s that cancer can be funny. Painful, difficult, challenging, emotionally draining, and a strain not only to the patient but to all those around them as well, of course. But hey – it can also be funny!

But it’s not very funny, at least not in this milquetoast, naturalistic film on the subject. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) and written by cancer survivor Will Reiser, 50/50 follows the low-key, likable Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a public radio news producer from Seattle (which is so obviously actually Vancouver) who is diagnosed with a rare sort of spinal cancer whose name he cannot pronounce. We see Adam internalize his physical pain and emotional loathing as he struggles to relate to the people around him through the heavy filter of his illness. Unwilling to connect meaningfully with his intrusive, smothering mother (Anjelica Huston) and unable to connect at all with the Alzheimer’s-stricken shell of his father (Serge Houde), Adam also can’t feel his way around his increasingly distant failed-artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his young, adorable, but professional awkward therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick). It falls largely to his longtime buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen playing Seth Rogen) to comfort him as only he knows how: with beer, weed, and pussy (as well as some amusing lad-criticism of contemporary art).

I know it's extreme, but our R.E.M. tribute band is going to be so much more awesome now!

50/50 is a movie with a wandering, sympathetic heart, but its approach to the inescapable seriousness of cancer does not build towards cathartic laughter nearly as often as promised. The title references Adam’s survival chances, and the spectre of mortality is hardly shied away from. But Gordon-Levitt is the centre of things, and my, does he hold. Wasted in empty supporting roles in action blockbusters like G.I. Joe and Inception for the past couple of years, it’s easy to forget what a controlled but natural performer Gordon-Levitt is. Adam is a mix of self-deprecation, sensitivity, and steely conviction, and he’s hardly a saint. But we’re on his side, and not merely because the plot inevitably demands that we must be. Gordon-Levitt is so good here that his effort looks effortless, even as his pain is hardly painless.

The film around this impeccable performance is rife with distracting problems, mind you. The romantic-bromantic parallellogram between Adam, Kyle, Rachael and Katherine presents a multiplicity of glaring issues. The negative characterization of the self-absorbed Rachael’s betrayal and manipulation of the stricken Adam is contrasted sharply to Kyle’s halting but heartfelt frat boy bonding. That Kyle exposes her for what she is and drives her away from his friend strengthens the impression so common to boys-own American comedies of recent vintage; namely, that women cannot be trusted and male society is the most rewarding relationship vector available. Adam’s bonding with two other male cancer patients (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) over chemotherapy reinforces the supposed supremacy of homosociality.

The blossoming heterosexual relationship between Adam and therapist Katherine, meanwhile, is presented as a healthy alternative to the one he just ended with Rachael, but is rife with obvious professional ethical breaches. Kendrick, whose performance is sprinkled with neurotic little gestures that make her seem more human than she perhaps ought to be, does at least display some awareness that important boundaries are being crossed in Katherine’s attempted treatment of Adam. But they are crossed nonetheless, and add to the general impression of a movie that feels just slightly off.

Perhaps a purported comedy about a young man contracting cancer cannot help but feel off, cannot avoid a certain disequilibrium of tone and content. And maybe there is an excellent, funny, emotionally galvanizing film to be wrung out of this essential contradiction, but 50/50 is unfortunately not it. And would it have killed Levine to break up his earnest ’90s indie rock soundtrack with a bit of Stephen Stills? Too literal a choice for some tastes, I suppose, but the absence can be lamented nonetheless.

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