Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tales From the Black List: 50/50 (2011)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

"That doesn't make any sense though. I mean, I don't smoke, I don't drink, I recycle..." Cancer is the great equalizer. You can do everything right and live an entirely unimpeachable life, you can be young or old, male or female, be anyone anywhere, and still get the news. Loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser's experience with cancer 50/50, which was part of the 2008 Black List (a list which also included such films as Inglorious Basterds, Up in the Air, The Descendants, Easy A, Foxcatcher and Sherlock Holmes), doesn't linger on the shock of the diagnosis. It comes fast, is given a moment, and then the film carries on, cycling through the stages of grief as it follows its protagonist, whose story is as much about him learning to deal with his diagnosis as it is him learning how to deal with the people around him as they deal with his diagnosis. It's a film that finds the comedy in tragedy, alternately funny and moving, and ultimately very humane.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, whose orderly life is turned upside down when he goes to the doctor to learn the source of his back pain and is informed that he has a tumor on his spine. Worried that he's going to be a burden, he gives his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), an opportunity to extricate herself from the relationship before he begins undergoing chemo therapy, but she insists that she's prepared to step up and take care of him. This is something of a relief to him, not only because no one wants to be abandoned by their partner when they're sick, but also because it means that he can decline when his mother (Anjelica Huston), who already has her hands full caring for his father (Serge Houde), who suffers from dementia, insists on moving in with him to take care of him. Fairly quickly, however, it becomes apparent that Rachael isn't actually prepared to be a caregiver and doesn't even really want to be in the relationship anymore, and things generally begin to cycle downward for Adam, whose outlook becomes increasingly bleak.

Although 50/50 obviously comes from a very personal place, its point-of-view is not as narrow as that might imply. It's Adam's story, to be sure, but that story is about how his illness helps him gain a better understanding of the people around him and develop a greater sense of empathy for them. Adam finds his mother overbearing (he himself seems to be something of a Type A person, so it may be a matter of a person who likes to be in control clashing with another person who likes to be in control), but comes to understand that he hasn't been entirely fair to her and that by allowing her to offer him support, he would in fact be giving support to her, as she has been somewhat isolated with her husband while adapting their lives to deal with his ailment. He begins to have a greater understanding and appreciation of her as a person and the interplay between Gordon-Levitt and Huston is marvelous, particularly when the moment comes when Adam really needs someone to tell him that things will be okay and she's the only one who can do it.

As his illness progresses, Adam becomes increasingly turned inward and alienated from the people around him, which turns into anger that he takes out on his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogan), and his counselor, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), accusing the former of using his illness as a means of picking up women, and the latter of not really knowing what she's doing (she's a PhD candidate and he's only the third client she's ever had - "How are the first two doing?" he asks). Because this is a movie, Katherine will become Adam's love interest, the good woman who will fill the void left by the bad woman (Rachael) and act as the reward the hero deserves. Because she's played by the eminently enjoyable Kendrick, that's a lot less annoying than it might otherwise be even though it's still super inappropriate. That inappropriateness is diminished somewhat by the fact that real love story is ultimately between Adam and Kyle, whose friendship at times strains under the stress of Adam's illness but ultimately perseveres.

While Kyle certainly does use Adam's illness to pick up women (on his own behalf, but on Adam's as well), he's a lot more emotionally invested in seeing Adam through than Adam gives him credit for, he just can't say it in so many words. His concern for Adam is a burden that he keeps to himself and when they're together, his focus is on trying to lighten the mood with humor, weed, and women. Although the film doesn't push too hard to call attention to it, the relationship between Adam and Kyle has a nice nuance to it, created by the very natural chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogan, and both actors deliver wonderful individual performances. 50/50 is a film about how hard it is to need other people, but also how necessary it is, and the depth that the film is able to achieve in exploring its relationships really brings that home and makes this slightly more than your average comedic drama/dramatic comedy.

No comments: