Posted on 8/10/11 05:08 PM
Comedy is often funniest when taking a risk and tackling taboo subject matter that will make audiences squirm. In recent years, movies like Religulous, In the Loop, and Four Lions have done just this, mining usually untapped sources of comedy gold - religion, the war in the Middle East, and terrorism, respectively - and thereby emerging as some of the most memorable and outright funniest movies in recent memory. In Jonathan Levine's (The Wackness) 50/50, the delicate subject of cancer is examined comically but carefully. Levine manages to get audiences laughing at situations that, in and of themselves, are far from funny, but he never crosses the line into undo levity. Instead, he crafts a film that finely balances comedy and poignancy, finding laughs in tragedy without glossing over the inherent hardship of a shitty situation.
It would be all too easy for a film like 50/50 to veer into apparent disrespect or - even worse - melodrama, but thankfully neither is the case here. Nearly every scene in the film has moments of joy and despair intermingled and ever unfolding concurrently; it's a rare treasure when a film can make you laugh and cry at the same time, and to such a degree.
The intermingling of pain and humor is consistent and never once rings false. Will Reiser's brilliant screenplay is utterly sincere, refusing to dilute a complicated plight to cardboard relationships, glossy characterizations, and overdone inspirational moments. Instead, Reiser finds the spectrum of reaction in each character and thus develops a network of believable, selfish, imperfect people relating to, disappointing, and surprising each other in ways that are refreshingly honest, sometimes to a startling degree. Throughout the film, I found shades of myself and people I know in the characters as they try their best to deal with the possibility of loss. It's beautiful in the messiness of its truth.
The well-written script provides plenty of room for the impressive ensemble to flex its collective acting muscle. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer, Inception) plays Adam, a 27 year-old radio worker whose cancer diagnosis comes completely out of the blue. Gordon-Levitt, indie heartthrob and - thanks to Christopher Nolan - blossoming blockbuster star, gives one of his finest performances to date. Throughout much of the film, Adam is solemn and detached to the point of stoicism, keeping his loved ones at arm's length and refusing to search for solace. As his condition worsens, however, Gordon-Levitt gets the chance to unleash all of Adam's frustration, anger, and fear. Screaming, crying, wishing, Gordon-Levitt's nuanced work doesn't simply pluck at the old heartstrings - it tears them to shreds.
The eclectic supporting cast thoroughly impresses, as well. Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, The Green Hornet) colors his typical bawdy teddy bear persona with a warmth and tender loyalty that he hasn't gotten to display in much of his other work. Rogen's got a knack for nailing the quiet, dramatic moments, though he still shines most when providing loud, colorful comic relief. Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village, The Help) nails the lovely bitch role as Adam's wavering girlfriend, while Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) brings her typical cute spunk, as well as surprising strength, to the role of Adam's inexperienced but earnest therapist.
Anjelica Huston deserves special mention as Adam's doting mother. Huston's screentime is limited, but she owns ever scene she's in, capturing just the right mixture of overbearing worrier and fiercely protective caretaker. Her delivery is flawless, and she brought tears to my eyes every time she appeared onscreen.
Tackling such tough subject matter in an effective but realistic way is difficult enough to do in a strict drama, but that Jonathan Levine and his cast and crew manage to do so with broad comedic strokes is truly impressive. 50/50 is a tearjerker like few movies I've ever seen, but unlike so many others, I never felt manipulated. Instead of laying the emotion on thick with a swelling musical score, slow-motion farewells, and uncharacteristically penetrating speeches, 50/50 is content to present Adam's situation in as realistic a way as possible. The ups and downs are accounted for and unfold as they likely would in real life, even if they're uncomfortable (even uncomfortably - seemingly inappropriately - funny). 50/50 isn't making light of cancer, not in the slightest. It's a celebration of life, love, and the people that make it all worthwhile, even when they let you down and make your plight a bit harder to bear. It's not an easy task to pull off, but 50/50 makes it seem effortless, even inevitable, to find such rapturous joy and biting comedy in one of the worst imaginable situations.