Sunday, October 2, 2011


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-


  1. Well, weren't you a busy little ant this weekend? Three new releases reviewed in one day? Thanks! I still want to see 50/50, maybe i'll give the Anna Farris film a chance when it comes up on DVD and I will not be seeing Dream House, because of what you wrote, but mostly importantly because I don't really watch thriller/horror films!

  2. Mixing humor and painful subject matter is, naturally, very difficult. The beauty of this movie is that it does so with ease, especially with such good actors in these roles as well. Good review Alex. Check out my review when you get a chance.

  3. @Aziza, yes Saturday was a day spent at the cinema watching mediocre-to-poor movies, at best. I'd give 50/50 a fair shot, but the others are not at all worthy of your time.

    @ Dan O., to its credit, I think 50/50 did switch tones gracefully a handful of times, but definitely not consistently. I honestly, truly believe that if another actor was cast in the Rogen role, the film could've been much better. Who knows, maybe I'm wrong.

    Thanks for reading!!

  4. Good review! I did find the pairing of Rogen and JGL a little unsatisfying at times, but I think the cancer-book-by-the-toilet at the end redeemed Rogen.

    I was a little unsure about JGL - I've always appreciated him in the past, but he wasn't 100% doing it for me in the film. Then he had his breakdown the night before surgery - that scream in the car was awesome and raw.

    I'm pretty sure James McAvoy was going to be in the lead role at some point. Wonder how he would have done...

  5. Yeah I heard that about McAvoy, and how JGL took over the role like two weeks before shooting began. The book by the toilet bit was a nice touch, but I had basically tuned out Rogen's character by then.

    I'm a huge JGL fan, and I thought he did well here, espcially that scream and the scene right before his surgery. Although I must say, this performance doesn't come close to his roles in Manic, Brick, Mysterious Skin, The Lookout, and so on.

    Much thanks to everyone for commenting!

  6. From your review it almost sounds comparable to 'Funny People'. Hopefully that isn't the case because 'Funny People' was instantly forgettable. I'd still like to see this given the chance. Good Review.

  7. I had a feeling this would be terrible; looks like I was right. I'm starting to get a little tired of Seth Rogen and if Joseph Gordon-Levitt keeps doing shit like this (which hopefully he won't), I'll probably lose interest in him too. Cancer can be a tricky subject to deal with, so sometimes it's best to not even try; this can't be as bad as that awful MY SISTER'S KEEPER.

  8. @Max, you know I actually thought about the Funny People similarities while watching this. To be fair, 50/50 is better than Funny People, which I absolutely hated. But it's generally the same exact thing.

    @Tyler, oh god, My Sister's Keeper. Jesus. So bad. I wouldn't recommend 50/50 to you, but I suppose many people would. Although, I would be curious to hear your thoughts about it.

    thanks to both of you for commenting!