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50/50

February 19, 2012

If you let the critics collectively accumulated on Rotten Tomatoes tell it, the odds of disliking Jonathan Levine’s  50/50 are nearly 10/90. Nearly every major critic has heralded this film as though it was the second coming, a film that is so immaculate in production it can tug the heartstrings of the Ice King. A film so fine it can walk the line of comedy and drama finer than Joaquin Phoenix did when he ruined his career. What’s not to love in a story of a man battling cancer, especially when that man is played by the ever so likable and amazing Joseph Gordon- Levitt? Yet after sitting through 50/50, I came to terms with the fact that while it’s a good film it’s just not that great of a movie. 50/50 was average at best and frankly I’m shocked that so many viewers were blown away by it. I am the 99.9%.

50/50 tells a somewhat uplifting tale of Adam (Joesph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old writer for a NPR knockoff station whom after having constant back pain discovers he has a rare form of genetic spinal cancer. After doing a bit of research Adam learns that his chance of survival is 50/50. He is recommended to a young and inexperienced therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick), whose job is to help him cope with not only his diagnosis but how reacts and copes with the news. Meanwhile Adam’s girlfriend Rachael attempts to make their relationship work despite her fears of hospitals and commitment while Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) finds a positive in his plight and decides to use Adam’s illness to sleep with shallow, airhead women.

While each character in the film is played by highly likable and extremely talented actors, the film’s biggest problem was how it used and developed these characters. Writer Will Reiser loosely based the screenplay on his own life and it deserves major kudos for delivering humor to such a painful and serious topic. However, the human aspect of the film is weak and lacking. Nearly all the characters posses virtually no background and hardly any growth despite having their lives changed dramatically. Adam suppresses many of his emotions and is the type of person who convinces himself that his girlfriend refuses to see him into his appointments because she doesn’t want to mix the negative energy of hospitals with her positive field. He’s the type of guy who believes his partner saying she has a yeast infection and period for three weeks straight to avoid sex. Instead of talking to her about their problems, Adam instead is the type of person who continues on forward, integrating her items into his home. Filled with conflicted emotions, Adam’s relationship with his mother (Anjelica Huston) is also strained as he sees her as nothing more than an overbearing, protective burden despite her desires to take care of her son while also having to care for her Alzheimer’s ridden husband.

Adam isn’t alone in his bland sheepishness, his psychiatrist and confidant Katherine attempts to help him deal with life after his diagnosis and sort through his varying emotions, a ask that proves difficult due to Adam’s hostility and skepticism. A young and extremely inexperienced doctor currently working on her doctorate and using Adam’s case in her dissertation, Katherine’s character is nearly paper thin.  It’s never explained why such a young bubbly student would want to make her life’s work helping patients deal with their impending death and a background to her life is only hinted at but never discussed, making her a pawn within the film along with another woman, Adam’s girlfriend Rachael.

Bryce Dallas Howard is subjected to playing the role of the archetypal one-dimensional bitch who the crowd is supposed to hate and cheer immensely when Kyle calls her out on a grave mistake she makes. 50/50 delights in personifying a bad guy through Rachael instead of fleshing out the difficulty of being in a relationship with someone during trying times especially when the relationship is in the throes of destruction. It also never gives Adam a moment of self-realization where he comes to terms with his own faults and shortcomings and learns to love and welcome those he’s shunned in his life. He never admits to his faults or apologizes to those he loves nor does he ever makes amends. He only momentarily experiences a moment of anger and later acceptance of his fate. The film ends at an abrupt point never fully disclosing the results of his career and issues with his family despite constantly bringing up the topics throughout the film.

Yet despite these contrived, melodramatic characters, most of whom are women, 50/50 has its shining moments. Rogen is the films  major highlight even though all he does is reprise his role as the stereotypical crass, pot smoking wise-ass. So what if his character is basically a cleaned up, thinner version of Ben Stone from Knocked Up? It’s all forgiven because his character holds the funniest and most engaging moments.  Director Johnathan Levine’s visual eye is also the film’s major strong point. Although his stunning visual effects are only seen sporadically through the film they are indicative of his the talent Levine possesses. In a scene where Adam is given his diagnosis from a motor-mouthed machine like doctor,  Adam beings to lose focus on what is being said. The camera reflects his loss of concentration by going in and out of focus coinciding with the shrill sound of ringing in Adam’s ears.

Yes I had a lot of gripes with 50/50 but its not all bad. Along with moments of visual ingenuity it has one of the most original screenplays that deals with the topic of a deadly disease since 1989’s Longtime Companion, an ensemble piece following a group of gay men dealing with AIDS during its epidemic. While not as fully engaging and heartening as a film like Longtime Companion,  50/50 has its moments of greatness in spite of the myriad questions I found myself distracted by like, ” “Who would do that?” “Who says that?” “what happened with that?” and ” who deliveries a diagnosis that way?” However, I do admire 50/50’s slightly humorous take on the sensitive and uncomfortable  topic of cancer.

SEE IT. It’s far from a masterpiece or even excellence but its good.

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