TIFF 2011: 50/50 Review

     September 11, 2011


No film festival trip would be complete without sampling at least one depressing cancer movie. There isn’t another disease that has produced more nauseating tearjerkers and thankfully 50/50 isn’t one of them. That’s not to say that there’s no danger of having a tear or two jerked out over the course of the movie, it just isn’t the filmmakers’ main goal. You see, what we’re dealing with here is that rare beast known as the cancer comedy and more specifically, a cancer comedy from Seth Rogen. The film has the amiable wondering stoner comedy feel of much of Rogen’s work, the difference being that this time he’s playing best buddy to Joseph Gordon-Levitt who has recently been diagnosed with everyone’s favorite disease-of-the-week (see the title for his odds of survival). It’s a concept that really shouldn’t work, yet it does quite well. There’s something sweetly genuine about the way the characters use comedy as a self-defense mechanism against a terminal illness and it probably comes closer to capturing how those suffering from the disease actually react than any melodrama. Hit the jump for the full cancerous scoop.

Weirdly, the only part of 50/50 that feels awkward is the opening act. We’re introduced to Joseph Gordon Levitt as an uptight young with a wisecracking best friend (Rogen) and a not-so-great girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard). It feels like the makings of a boring buddy comedy and comes across as quite stale (though perhaps deliberately so to make to make the cancerous rug pull feel that much more dramatic). However, that quickly changes as soon as Levitt has the c-bomb dropped on him and the characters don’t react they way they are supposed to in a typical disease weepy. Levitt seems to wander around in a daze unable to entirely process the information. Howard tries to be supportive but is quickly to be a terrible girlfriend. Rogen tries to keep Levitt’s mind off thigns through weed, jokes, and getting guilt sex from girls. Then there’s Anjelica Huston as Levitt’s overprotective mother who he keeps at arm’s length even as he approaches death, his fellow chemotherapy buddy (Philip Baker Hall) who introduces him to medical marijuana, and the young therapist-in-training he’s been assigned who is awkward at her job, but just the kind soul he needs. Though these sorts of movies all barrel towards one of two inevitable conclusions, the trick is in how to get there and 50/50 admirably manages to avoid tge clichés at almost all times.

A great deal of the success of the movie has to be attributed to a strong autobiographical script written by Will Reisner with a little help from his real life friends Seth Rogen and his writing partner Even Goldberg, who served as producers. Comedy and cancer are not an easy mix, but through the patented Apatow brand of sweet sentiment wrapped in gentle vulgarity, they pull it off. The comedy never feels forced, it’s merely a natural reaction that many people would have when thrust into such an emotionally intense situation. But while the film is consistently funny, it never feels as though it’s trivializing cancer either. The disease is never the butt of the joke, just the situations it creates (like Levitt borrowing Rogen’s clippers to shave his head for chemo and only then learning that the clippers were used mainly for ball hair). It’s a pretty strong piece of writing aided by an amazing cast with Levitt excelling through a pretty physical and emotionally wrought role, Anna Kendrick providing another delightfully quirky characterization, Anjelica Huston stealing scenes as a hysterically overbearing mother, and Rogen providing the necessary comedy factory and warm smiles.

In theory, 50/50 probably shouldn’t work. Cancer should be a far more difficult subject to slot into the Rogen school of comedy than The Green Hornet, but it works infinitely better because it’s rooted in identifiable human emotions rather than fantasy (kind of an important comedy component). It’s kind of hard to avoid sentimentality with a project like this, but the filmmakers manage to sneak in enough irreverent humor to make the tearful passages go down smoothly (the spoonful of sugar technique, if you will). The movie isn’t perfect, there are still a few moments of awkward screenwriting to accommodate all of the conflicting tones, emotions, and characters into 90s minutes, but all things considered it’s an impressive piece of work. It’s safe to say that cancer has never been this funny before and that’s gotta be a good thing, right?

—- B+

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