50/50 tells the uneven story of Adam, a 27-year-old do-gooder who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer that brings with it the life-and-death odds reflected in the film’s title.
As a result of the cancer, relationships fail, work continues, weed is smoked, girls are laid, dogs are fed, heads are shrunk, and so on.
To be clear: 50/50 didn’t work for me. There are a few redeeming qualities, but, in my mind, its constant tonal shifts from find-me-funny to please-oh-please-cry-for-me were overbearing misfires. Amusingly, 50/50 is garnering great reviews, damn near excellent, in fact. So now I’m left to defend my uncommon abhorrence. Here goes.
Let’s start with Seth Rogen, who, like most of his buddies in the Apatow Family Circus, only knows how to play one character. Sometimes it works (40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad) and sometimes, as is the case with 50/50, it hinders a film almost completely.
Rogen plays Adam’s selfish, grotesque best “friend,” Kyle. Kyle is, as you might expect, a sloppy, profane, pot-smoking hornball who cares far more about which girl he’s going to pick up than his friends’ well being. Kyle is seen doing a number of things that no real cancer-ridden friend would (or should) put up with. This includes using Adam’s illness as a way to get laid, annoyingly taking all the credit for calling Adam’s cheating girlfriend out, not returning Adam’s calls the night before his most influential doctor’s appointment, and getting wasted the night before Adam could very well lose his life in surgery. What’s worse, the movie, in its weakest moment, tries to save face by having Adam tell Kyle how selfish he is. Really? You’re just realizing that now? Or maybe he’s known for years, and is just now sharing it with his best buddy. In short, I didn’t buy this friendship for a second. There are so many better-equipped actors to fill in the best friend role, and 50/50 is seriously brought down by its chosen performer.
Rogen isn’t the only one at fault here. Director Jonathan Levine, who had similar tonal issues with his last film, The Wackness, is relying too much on the heavy handedness of his material to propel the film. You think I can’t hate on a movie about a kid with cancer? Think again. Trade is a very poorly made film about human trafficking. Dear Zachary is a very awkwardly narrated and horribly edited documentary about the murder of small child. Remember Me uses 9/11 as a punch line. Pearl Harbor makes Pearl Harbor look ridiculous. Life is Beautiful turns the Holocaust into a running gag (yeah, I hate that movie, sorry). And so on. Just because your film is about a nice guy who gets cancer, doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically care about it.
The script, by Will Reiser, is rarely as funny as it thinks it is, and the characters are hardly as fleshed out as Levine wants them to be. Are we supposed to care about Adam’s new friend, and fellow cancer patient, who dies unexpectedly? Maybe, if we had gotten to know him. Am I supposed to sympathize with Adam’s cheating girlfriend? Because it seems like she’s just made to be a cookie-cutter cold heart. Does the fact that Adam’s father, stricken with a horrible case of Alzheimer’s, lend anything whatsoever to the rest of the film? No, it does not.
If 50/50 works, it is because of the immense talents of a trio of performers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does all that he can and more with Adam. His performance is raw, tender and wholly believable. It’s the type of acting that deserves far better source material. Levitt has long been a true talent, and that isn’t up for debate here. Anna Kendrick, as Adam’s very young, very ill-equipped shrink, is a master of subtle, awkward tension. Kendrick won me over big time with Up in the Air; and she’s doing very well at living up to her soon-to-be A-list status.
But the best performance in 50/50, which, incidentally is by far the most underwritten, belongs to Anjelica Huston, who plays Adam’s mother as a smothering, lost, desperate woman. When she’s on screen, the film soars; a shame, given her pitiful amount of screen time. It’s her best role since The Royal Tenenbaums, which is seriously saying something.
Despite these strong performances, 50/50 carries a few too many faults for me to recommend it. Maybe you’ll enjoy it (most have) or maybe you’ll be like me: tired of films relying on the sensitivity of their material to help tip the scales. C-