It Takes A Pair To Beat The Odds

Jonathan Levine

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Seth Rogen
Anna Kendrick
Bryce Dallas Howard
Anjelica Huston

Every year TVs and cinemas across the world are flooded with dramas, sometimes even comedic dramas focusing on cancer. Why cancer? Because it’s the only thing killing the human race off with astonishing effectiveness and almost everyone knows someone who’s been affected. It’s perfectly acceptable if you haven’t noticed, the majority of them are absolute dross. Now, a cynical individual would suggest that such films are largely created for actors to shave their heads, cry and grab an award or two and for studios to make a great handful of cash – I’m sure this isn’t the case for all of them but with so many crap flicks flooding the market, the movie industry has become quietly saturated by cancer films. 50/50, however, is different. Not only that, it’s a profoundly beautiful piece.

The film opens with a brief introduction to Adam Lerner [Gordon-Levitt]; a completely average young man, maybe a little more insecure than most, his modern-art producing girlfriend, Rachael [Howard] and his loutish best friend, Kyle [Rogen]. Everything is completely normal up until the point that Adam consults his doctor about a back pain he’s been suffering from for some time. Sitting calmly with the consultant, Adam falls into a trance the second the word cancer slips from the doctor’s mouth. From here on he’s bombarded by awkward conversations, over-compensating friends and family as well as countless individuals patting his shoulder and muttering, “It’s going to be fine”. To help Adam cope with his diagnosis, he is recommended a therapist, Katie McCay [Kendrick], who is in fact three years younger than him. As Katie is still in training and Adam is only her third patient, the first few sessions are incredibly uncomfortable and seem to have little effect. As the story progresses, Adam’s emotional state subtly fluctuates and he loses many inhibitions, growing increasingly frustrated by his situation and how people have to ‘deal with it’.

I think the first thing to say about this film is that it is agonisingly real and almost unbearably credible. Through a combination of exceptional performances all-round, steady direction and a beautifully cutting screenplay, 50/50 feels… completely real. I think every critic would agree that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is breath-taking, seemingly ‘doing’ so little and yet conveying so much with this flawless thousand yard stare. Then there’s Seth Rogen’s performance (which is more a re-enactment of his own actions when screenwriter Will Reiser was actually diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer) which is, well, everything you’d expect from a Seth Rogen role layered with an incredibly touching sincerity. The other supports are a little more two-dimensional but equally impressive. Bryce Dallas Howard has somehow managed to really hone that self-important bitch role – curiously enough, that’s actually a compliment – Anna Kendrick seems to almost channel a less confident Tina Fey – again, compliment – and Anjelica Huston wholly embodies the overbearing mother who simply wants to help, despite taking care of her Alzheimer’s stricken husband.

From a technical standpoint, Levine has produced a very strong release with carefully arranged shots that no doubt accommodated a great deal of ad-libbing and spontaneity, whilst capturing everything you’d expect from a major motion picture. The pacing and structure are glorious, ensuring the entire one hundred minutes progress without dragging or rushing Adam’s journey. Additionally, the choice of location (Seattle) was surprisingly commendable, providing a cloudy backdrop of city skylines, suburban house-rows and picturesque mountain ranges. On top of all that there is a deliberate but wholly natural growing suspense and up until the film’s conclusion, you feeling a rising tension in your gut as you quietly ask yourself that horrendously morbid question.. is this character going to die? And, honestly, you care; which, to me, is the greatest effect a film of this nature can hope for.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t perfect and there are a few tiny negative elements that niggled at me. Firstly, every tick-box cliché that I would usually berate a lesser release for has been explored here. I realise this may be an obsolete statement as it’s heavily grounded in a real experience and at no point feels forced but the film still pads itself with familiar developments and characters – they’re just better represented here than anywhere else. Secondly, we have that atypical folk/indie score that I simply can’t stand. From television ads to independent cinema and sitcoms everywhere, we’re being constantly hounded by hemp wearing fuckers with acoustic guitars, warbling on about some bollocks in the most tedious manner under the delusion that their lack of emotion is the most emotional expression one can produce. Twats. I appreciate it’s certainly fitting for this film and works extremely well at times but on a personal level, I hate it.

As stated in my final summary, this film is one of many dealing with the subject of terminal illness but so few have managed to really nail that perfect combination of humour, heart, sorrow and sheer rage as delicately and entertainingly as 50/50. I don’t care if you’ve had cancer, know someone who has or even know someone who knows someone with cancer, it doesn’t matter, this film is about how we as a species deal with the reality of death and for that reason alone, everyone should watch this.

Release Date:
25th November 2011

The Scene To Look Out For:
**Spoilery spoilers within**
There are so very many outstanding scenes ranging from heart-wrenching to hilarious so singling out one instance in particular is quite tricky. I think the scene I enjoyed the most was Kyle arriving unannounced at Adam’s house to show him a blurry photo on his mobile of Rachael with another man. The exchange that follows is not only wonderfully written but amazingly acted, reminiscent of something you’d see in a play, with characters sitting, standing, leaving the set, coming back and all the while talking over each other. I may have over hyped this very simple exchange but it’s one of those moments that highlights the stellar acting, writing and direction.

Notable Characters:
As stated above, each performance is notably brilliant for various reasons, with each actor providing a truly memorable role. But to say anything other Joseph Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal would be criminal. If I’m honest, I would say 2011 has been a good year for film and for box office revenue but a little sparse when considering truly exceptional performances. As such, when the awards seasons roll round, you can’t help but say “Of those available, this was the strongest.” Not here, with 50/50 Gordon-Levitt has given us a truly spectacular performance and in my mind, the finest of the year.

Highlighted Quote:
“I would like to present to you what I am going to call Exhibit Whore! Look at it! That’s Rachael and that’s a fucking filthy Jesus-looking motherfucker and they’re kissing! I did it! I fucking nailed you! I’ve hated you for months and now I have fucking evidence that you suck as a person! Holy shit!”

In A Few Words:
“I’ve seen a lot of shitty ‘cancer films’ (trust me, there are tonnes) but 50/50 is simultaneously touching, funny and thoroughly grand”

Total Score: