Friday, September 30, 2011

50/50: Beats the odds

50/50 (2011) • View trailer for 50/50
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, sexual candor and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.30.11

Flip a coin. Heads, you live; tails, you die.

Shuffle a deck of cards — remove the jokers first — and deal the top card onto the table. Red, you live; black, you die.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is mildly uneasy when he learns that his
therapist is three years younger than he is. His uncertainty increases further when
he discovers that the inexperienced Katherine (Anna Kendrick) has had only
two previous patients.

We all exist under the shadow of survival odds; it’s how insurance companies stay in business. Most of us, though, are blessed by never knowing how good or bad our odds have become, from one moment — day, week, month — to the next.

Those receiving unexpected news regarding a deadly disease aren’t that lucky. In a heartbeat, they enter a world of statistics and percentages. Life becomes ... challenged.

Director Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is a thoughtful, frequently funny and unexpectedly sensitive movie about a young man’s response to cancer. Will Reiser’s script is sharp, acutely perceptive and — regardless of outcome — richly life-affirming. The result is another impressive tightrope act of tone and balance: the second such film I’ve seen in the past week.

And, as with director Mona Achache’s handling of The Hedgehog, Levine’s approach to 50/50 is every bit as skilled. Frankly, I’m impressed; after a weak start with the forgettable horror flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Levine has fulfilled the promise he demonstrated with his far better — albeit unjustly ignored — sophomore effort, The Wackness.

Granted, 50/50 isn’t without flaws. A little bit of Seth Rogen goes a very long way, and at times he threatens to hijack the film. But Levine clearly perceives the fine line of Too Much, and he rarely lets Rogen step over it. Not an easy task, when dealing with such a comedic force of nature.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an increasingly accomplished actor of the “quiet” school, stars as Adam, a 27-year-old guy living an unremarkable, unthreatening “B-minus” life, in producer Ben Karlin’s words. Adam wouldn’t view it that way, but he’s definitely the mildly withdrawn and “safe” counterpoint to his wild ’n’ crazy best friend, Kyle (Rogen).

The guys live in Seattle (the film actually was shot in Vancouver, B.C.) and work at the local National Public Radio station, where Adam has been editing a feature on volcanoes long past the point of perfection. Adam takes pride in his craft; Kyle can’t understand why he’d bother with a piece that people will hear while driving to work, and then immediately forget. And thus Adam and Kyle’s contrasting personalities are established.

Somehow, Adam has landed a sexy, gallery-crawling artist girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who brightens their adorable apartment with impressionistic paintings that look like random brushstrokes on canvas. Adam nonetheless displays them with pride. He neither smokes nor drinks, and he also doesn’t drive: doesn’t even have a license, because he regards the process as too dangerous. Kyle drives them both to work each day (a choice that strikes me as even more dangerous, but, well, friendship trumps certain fears).

Lately, though, Adam has suffered from increasingly severe back pain. When he finally sees a doctor and runs through what he imagines are a routine series of tests, the result is anything but routine. He has a rare form of cancer that he can’t even remember, let alone pronounce: a neuro-fibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma.

“Cancer of the back,” Adam later shortcuts, in exasperation, when Kyle tries to wrap his mouth around the phrase. Or, more precisely, a massive tumor on the spine. The diagnostic images evoke unsettling memories of the internal larval parasite from Alien. Very serious. Chance of recovery, with treatment: 50/50.

“That’s not so bad,” Kyle insists, upon hearing the news. “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.”

And so Adam surrenders his life — and any semblance of control thereof — to the rituals of chemotherapy, vomiting, exhaustion and therapy sessions with an even younger woman (Anna Kendrick, as Katherine) working on her doctorate. Adam is her third patient; although well-meaning and clearly sincere, her inexperience shows.

Adam befriends Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), both older, at their chemo sessions. Introductions are accompanied by their respective diagnoses, the way one might say, “I’m an engineer.” This prompts a giggle, but it feels right.

They turn Adam on to the benefits of marijuana-laced macaroons, made with love by Mitch’s wife. Adam takes note of this, and wonders anew why Rachael doesn’t join him during these sessions; she always begs off, citing a desire not to mix the “negative vibes” of the hospital with the “positive vibes” at home. This feels ... wrong.

Kyle, for his part, discovers that Adam has become better than a puppy, when it comes to attracting the attention of cute women: sort of surrogate “pity sex.” Works like a charm, much to Adam’s amusement.

And yet we also see occasional chinks in Kyle’s blustery armor. At times, he’s worse than a husband experiencing sympathetic pregnancy pains in the presence of an expectant wife. Then, too, for all of Kyle’s surface bravado, Rogen’s eyes also reveal concern and even anxiety, although never when Adam’s looking.

Gordon-Levitt and Rogen share the easygoing camaraderie of longtime friends, but the film’s best relationship is that between Adam and Katherine. Kendrick is marvelous as a novice therapist who tries, so hard, to say the right thing at every moment. Katherine, clearly aware of her own inexperience, overcompensates by delivering her words with what she imagines are the proper hand gestures and expressions of professional caring; it’s as if she believes this is a formula that can be mastered, and that a “perfect” combination of words, tone and body language will put any client at ease, no matter how agitated.

Kendrick has been here before; she earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for playing a similar role in “Up in the Air,” as an arrogant but well-meaning corporate trainee led to believe that people could be “successfully” fired with a similarly flawless approach. Here, her Katherine is so earnest that Adam can’t help being suspicious and worried that, somehow, she’s making fun of him.

Far from it, and their resulting verbal dances — as Adam’s condition worsens, from one session to the next — become this story’s emotional heart.

Anjelica Huston does nice things as Diane, Adam’s somewhat overbearing mother: the sort of drama-mama whose instinctive reaction involves questioning the doctor’s credentials and demanding that the office temperature be raised to a more acceptable level. (“My son has cancer,” she intones with chillness, playing Adam’s sickness card the same way Kyle uses it to score dates.)

Diane has had plenty of practice being overly protective, having had to cope for years with her husband’s slide into dementia. This, by the way, is Reiser’s sole misstep; it’s simply one tragedy too many, even though it eventually helps bridge the estrangement between mother and son.

If the deepening bond between Adam and Katherine is this film’s heart, then Gordon-Levitt himself is its soul. His expressions, always precisely calculated, reveal great depths; Adam may be quiet, but he’s certainly not insensitive or emotionally repressed. He “calms out” in the face of this upheaval because that’s always been his way; he seems to feel that stoicism — balance — is expected.

At the same time, Gordon-Levitt’s eyes reveal Adam’s anguish and building terror; we know, eventually, that he’ll snap.

The cast is rounded out by an oddly expressive canine: a retired racing greyhound Rachael gives to Adam, in an effort to exploit a dog’s natural “healing vibes.” Greyhounds aren’t the world’s most attractive dogs, so its appearance mostly is played for laughs ... but not always. Here, again, Levine understands how to defy our expectations, when this pooch suddenly does its job during one of Adam’s more vulnerable moments.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes this film so memorable. The surface veneers of raunchy buddy comedy and flirtatious romantic drama subtly establish a set of characters who work their way into our hearts and minds; as a result, when things turn serious, we care deeply. Death can be funny, profound and unexpectedly invigorating; Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman may have hammed their way through The Bucket List, but the final scene was no less powerful for their broad strokes.

The touches here are much gentler, and therefore even more compelling. 50/50 has a solid ring of truth, for reasons which — alas! — I cannot elaborate here, lest too much be revealed. This film likely will resonate for years, even decades, with those attempting to cope with similar situations themselves, or a crisis involving a loved one.

Gordon-Levitt demonstrated how to handle an emotional break-up in the equally profound (500) Days of Summer, and now he’s showing us how to cope with mortality. Not a bad record, for an actor who just turned 30.

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