Review: 50/50

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston
Director: Jonathan Levine
Rating: 15

Well, I for one was disappointed that there was no Sally Gray cameo.

Making earnest, emotional-pornography movies about serious and/or terminal illness seems to be very much a thing of the past: nowadays, people seem to prefer a darkly comic approach, where you can explore all of the horrible parts of the condition in question without having to leave out all the parts where people in general are absolutely hopeless at saying or doing the right thing. It feels a very 21st century way to go about things: why be emotional when you can be ironic or subversive? Having said that, there’s no reason why a comedic approach can’t still be incredibly moving: The Big C on TV has had some moments that have had me wiping away tears and snot with my sleeves (although that show’s case is helped immensely by having Laura Linney and Oliver Platt as its leads, because they can make me care about pretty much anything). And if anything, I thought 50/50 was even more affective, despite covering territory that’s even more bleak than that of The Big C.

So here we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, an NPR producer who discovers that he has a malignant tumour in his spine (I’m not even going to attempt to spell the correct medical terminology for his affliction, just take my word that it’s a right bastard). JG-L is generally pretty reliable if you need a likeable, relatable lead and that’s very much the case here: he’s the straight man and the sounding-board for everyone else’s neuroses (self-absorbed friend, awful girlfriend, melodramatic mother), and it wouldn’t be surprising if he got drowned out as a result, but there’s never any doubt that he’s the centre of this film: if anything, there were times when I found everyone else too irritating and wanted to get back to Adam quietly dealing with things in his own way. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also looks good with a bald head and with a series of hats, the importance of which cannot be understated in a film such as this.

In terms of the supporting cast, I felt very sorry for Bryce Dallas Howard – she seems to just be stuck playing irredeemably awful people, doesn’t she? Sure, there’s a lot to be said for finding your niche, but she must be quite exhausted trying to make these characters three-dimensional. Seth Rogen is fun as the well-meaning but socially unsubtle best friend, while Anna Kendrick is stuck with probably the most troublesome role of all: novice psychologist Katherine, who’s probably the film’s greatest mis-step: having her and Adam fall for each other (and ultimately end up together) is too treacly and crowd-pleasing for a movie that’s pleasingly low-key the rest of the time. Chris and I spent the last quarter of the movie pointing out all of the ways in which she would be so very, very struck-off for her behaviour, and it seemed irresponsible of the movie not to even acknowledge this, let alone address it. That said, Kendrick is another actor whom I find endlessly watchable, and she does a creditable job of making the character far more rounded and sympathetic than I suspect she was on the page.

The Katherine nonsense is a real shame, because the film handles most of the other disease-movie tropes well – I don’t wish to sound flippant, but it’s a relief that the film neatly sidesteps the “OH MY GOD IT IS SO TRAGIC THAT HE’S DYING SO YOUNG” aspect for the most part, except with Adam’s mother (played by Anjelica Houston), but she’s so broadly characterised that she’s practically a wink at the fourth wall anyway. It’s also refreshing that the death of one of the friends that Adam makes during chemotherapy is treated matter-of-factly. It does, admittedly, provide an epiphany of sorts for Adam, but it’s played in an understated and realistic-feeling way. I like that Adam’s not portrayed as a saint, either: he’s clearly a good guy, but he’s allowed to be angry and upset and vindictive at various points, which keeps him nicely grounded. Ultimately, if you can forgive the film’s unfortunate need to tack on an ill-fitting and superfluous love story, this is a very satisfying watch.

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