Adam, the 27-year-old protagonist in the terrific new dramatic comedy "50/50", remembers that movie, and makes reference to the title as he tries, delicately, to tell his mother that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer.
"50/50" is infused with the audacious humor that made that particular moment in "Terms of Endearment" so memorable. Be assured, however, that cancer here is not just a punchline, and that the humor, while sometimes crude in a teen-comedy sort of way, is not offensive. I went in expecting a weepy sitcom---I worked myself into a mood for that--and was surprised at how unexpectedly warm and honest, and funny, this movie is.. "50/50", cleanly directed by Jonathan Levine, exceeded my expectations, and may be one of my year's favorites.
Most viewers know from the start that "50/50" is inspired by the story of comedy-writer and cancer-survivor, Will Reiser (in the photo above with the film's co-star Seth Rogen), who turned the experience into a screenplay. (The title refers to Adam's chances for survival. )
Reiser, with help from friends, like Rogen, recalled the unbridled humor of his sad and incomprehensible situation. They realized that it was the humor that allowed them to get through the shock of the diagnosis, the cold and clinical attitudes of some of the medical caregivers, the treatments, the side effects, the worry expressed by family members, the discomfort of well-meaning friends, the pain, and the despair.
Knowing that Reiser had survived the ordeal takes away the false suspense of whether Adam will have a deathbed scene, and reassures the viewer that there will be less chance of emotional manipulation by exploiting the disease.
The film has a fun-loving slacker spirit that Rogen embodies throughout. But the film wisely keeps to an even, thoughtful tone so that Rogen provides comic high points and needed relief, but does not dominate the story.
The film belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam. As he plays him, Adam is the quiet center of the movie, a common-sense low-key everyman, a feature reporter for a Seattle NPR station where he works with his best friend Kyle (Rogen). When the pain and discomfort in his back are discovered to be the cancer that will require a possibly fatal surgery, Levine's camera stays close to Adam, and captures how those closest to him respond. His vulnerability touches everyone in different ways.
Gordon-Levitt has been a bright spot for me in almost every film I have seen him do. Here, he resists temptation toward histrionics. In collaboration with his real-life counterpart Reiser, he is able to express the numbness, deep emotion, and even wry humor in a straightforward portrayal. The result is a lovable, convincing and compelling performance that is also a quiet tribute to Reiser.
I liked many of the details and motifs that lent some depth to what would have been simply a sufficiently involving story:
For instance, hair is seen as a sort of a sign of health, strength, and virility. Early on, Adam runs out of shampoo and must use his girlfriend's fruit-scented brand, a foreshadowing of his impending dependence on an unreliable partner. When Kyle gets a whiff of Adam's fruit-scented mane, he riffs on it in his broad, ironic way that gives us the first of many clues that these two are soul mates who are only outwardly platonic.
Later, Adam, with squeamish help from Kyle, has shaved all of the hair off his head in a remarkable scene that appears to have been the real thing (remarkable in that the actors stayed in character without the need to do retakes!). Completely shorn, Levitt has a gamine, almost androgynous quality that inspires intense feeling from others, including the audience. There are a few closeups of his face, his head completely bald as he lays on his pillow, that make one want to weep, or enfold him in one's arms.
There are several times Kyle makes a brash statement to Adam, like a verbal buddy-punch to the arm, which translates roughly to "I love you." Levitt's Adam gamely puts up with Rogen's constant search for women, even when Adam is too tired from illness or treatment.
When Adam breaks down from the strain and calls Kyle out for his selfishness, the pain and regret from both of them are palpable. (This is Levitt's big emotional moment in the film, and he is brilliantly up to the task.) Adam has finally shattered his demeanor of "Acceptance", spoken his heart, and can now put things back in order.
In another subplot in the chemotherapy room, Adam's two older companions-in-treatment (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) offer him some pot-laced cookies (served in a tin painted with a fruit pattern!) This leads to a goofy and wonderful interlude in which Levitt, stoned out of his mind, wanders the hospital halls while the Bee Gees wail on the soundtrack. Soon after that, there is an sequence in which Adam succumbs to nausea. Broad humor in this film is often followed by physical or emotional intensity.
Adam's relationship with his doting, anxious but inwardly strong mother (Anjelica Houston), provides another side-plot that is entirely natural but is saved from cliche by Houston's powerhouse presence. She is so good on film; As she reacts to the news of her son's illness, Houston dredges up pain from deep inside, and her cries of anguish, even off-screen, dominate the scene's emotional landscape. Houston's character is also caring for a husband with Alzheimer's disease. As annoying as Adam thinks her to be, her unwavering strength in the face of it all helps Adam break through an adolescent phase in his relationship with her, and allows him to accept, and even be strong for, his parents in a new way.
Best of all is Adam's budding relationship with Katherine, (Anna Kendrick) an apprentice social worker who has been assigned by the clinic to help him deal with the uncertainty and emotional trauma of his cancer. This completes a sort of triangle with his philandering artist-girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard in her smarmy best).
Finally, Katherine learns to be authentic in her treatment of Adam. Her "touch" on Adam's arm, a professional device that is menat meant to inspire trust, but that is clearly artificial and annoying to him, eventually becomes a warm touch of encouragement and love, as she accepts her romantic yearnings for him.
Kendrick becomes our surrogate and finally our heroine. A viewer understands the difficulty that anyone, even one who is a trained professional, can have in being direct, not falsely optimistic or avoiding reality. By the end, we are relieved to see her, and hope that she is will provide the strength Adam that needs to see him through.
Adam allows his cancer to teach him about the people around him, lessons he feels an urgency to learn as he senses his time running short. Most moving is his discovery that his crude and often selfish buddy (Rogen) has actually been studying books about how to help a friend with cancer, books they originally bought as a ploy to score a date for Rogen with an attractive bookstore clerk.
It is impossible to remain unmoved as Adam's realization of his mortality finally settles in. He expresses his unabashed affection for his equally reticent pal Kyle, (the camera giving them space as Adam desperately, appropriately hugs Kyle in the front seat of their truck); proclaims his love for his awkward and earnest therapist, (Kendrick); and makes peace with his anxious, smothering but good-hearted mother (Houston).
Finally, I have to give voice to my particular bias for dogs, by stating that the best, funniest closeup of any celebrity in any film this year was scored by...a very perplexed and loving greyhound named Skeletor. Skeletor is adopted for Adam early in the film, and it is to the movie's great credit (in my eyes) that the dog is not used for one joke and then simply abandonded. I felt real love coming from the screen when Skeletor crawls next to a despondend Levitt in bed, and nuzzles his face.
From out of left field, a movie that got relatively little advanced press has won over audiences in a quietly hilarious way. I think the film, without preaching, will give some people hope.
I hope this becomes Levitt's breakout moment; allows Rogen to move into more sensitive roles; brings Houston back to the big screen more regularly; gives Kendrick a place of stardom next to Amy Adams; encourages people to save orphaned racing greyhounds; and gets its name called a few times on a certain Sunday night in February.
Most of all, seriously, I hope contemporary audiences will see this movie, take ot to heart, and make it a perennial favorite, in the same way their predecessors embraced a movie like---well, maybe "Terms of Endearment".