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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Film Review - 50/50 (2011)

I will return to my list of the worst of the 90's next, but first, I wanted to present this review of the film 50/50:

50/50 is one of those very simple indie-style films that seem to attract movie snobs such as myself.  In its style it brings back memories of other subtlety-styled films like An Education and Half Nelson.  This is a good way for these films to convey their true-to-life plots, and for me, 50/50 almost stands along these great films as a very solid dramedy that is both entertaining and sincere, and though it is quite good, it is just a little too safe to be great.  That said, there are fewer and fewer films these days that don’t suffer from the endless onslaught of CGI images, politics or offensive stereotypes.  This is a simple character film, designed to show us a period in one man’s life as he struggles with many different emotions on top of the growing fear of his own mortality.

The story of 50/50 centers on Adam, an exceptionally nice everyman who is troubled by the recent discovery of a large tumor on his spinal column.  He seems to be surrounded by coldness and conflict from just about every direction.  His mother is overbearing, his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) tries to stick with him at first, but ultimately succumbs to her own failings, and the doctors he meets seem to be more cold than caring.  He finds support, however, in his lifelong friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a young therapist named Katherine (Anna Kendrick) and a couple of older men (Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall) he meets during his regular rounds of chemotherapy.  There are a few predictable plot points in this film that are so strongly hinted at, by the end of the movie they bring no surprise, and these little problems sort of hurt this film for me, but it is definitely a well-told story, and the story is not even my favorite thing about 50/50.

50/50 is a film that stands entirely on its performers.  Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are among my favorite actors working today.  They all seem like regular people in just about everything they appear in, despite how absurd the film may be, and here they all are just great.  I particularly like Seth Rogen here, who gives a performance where, at first you can truly see selfishness in the way he is trying to use his close friend’s ailment to score women for one-night-stands, but over time you see him sort of masking his own pain behind forced humor and mumbled laughter.  For me, he gives the best performance of his career so far.  I was convinced he was an outwardly selfish person who overtime falls to his own struggle with his childhood friend’s possible death.  Anna Kendrick is also good, though not as good as I thought she could be, given the perfection she displayed in Up In the Air.  Still, her role as a therapist who is just too young and too na├»ve to be doling out life advice is believable, and like Rogen, you can see her trying to mask her own emotion behind a wall of professionalism.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is strong as well, and there are a few scenes where he is definitely giving his all, but there were a few points where he seemed to sort of fade into the background despite being the centerpiece of almost every conversation in the film.  I think this was part of his character, being sort of reserved and shy (the polar opposite of his outgoing friend), but as the film goes on, we start to see more and more emotion, and by the end of the film, he gives a performance that just might earn him an Oscar nomination, though I’ve learned not to hold my breath about such things.

When a film like this comes along, I’m always enthused to be able to recommend it to friends and family.  I do recommend 50/50 on its merits, though the way the film approaches the striking subject of cancer may be a little off-putting to some viewers.  To anyone who says the film’s tone was wrong though, I say nay.  I liked the tone of 50/50.  Instead of having its characters wallow in pity while violins play through the film as we see events unfold through a deep blue filter, 50/50 keeps its head up.  We see the characters struggle with their emotions and by the dawn of the third act, all of the characters let it all out, especially Adam.

50/50 was directed by Johnathan Levine, who also directed a very strong 2008 film called The Wackness.  He is proving himself to be very good at dealing with difficult subjects honestly, while continuing to show us the lighter points in life.  I think 50/50 is going to be his high-profile springboard, and I look forward to his next work.  This is writer Will Reiser’s (related to actor Paul Reiser of Mad About You fame) first major film credit, and it’s good, quite good.  Sometimes it just takes the right movie to make a superstar, and I like the work both the director and writer did with this film. 

50/50 is not an uber-masterpiece.  It’s overly simple at times, almost rudimentary in its presentation, but this approach works for what the material deals with.  It is a very elementary film, with a narrow focus that never really veers into the risky, mainly following the most obvious directions, but it is a good movie with excellent performances.  Sometimes a movie that would otherwise be mediocre or generally bad can be rescued by good acting, and this is an example of such a film.  This is not on par with some of the other character-focused dramas of recent years, and I’m not really expecting a Best Picture nomination for this one, but it is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.  Amidst a slew of shoddy, brainless, effects-driven crap, 50/50 is a movie that actually tells a story, and while it is not as good at this as some, but certainly better than most.

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