Film | Joseph Gordon-Levitt | Nathaniel Rogers

Movies: '50/50' Mercilessly Jerks Tears With Dimply Smiles

Joseph Gordon-Levitt smiles through cancer in 50/50

...would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

Joining the very slim ranks of Cancer Comedies, 50/50 must surely number among the best of them. The film begins with a long shot of 27 year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) jogging. It's unclear why the film begins this way (we never see him exercise again) but it's telling. Adam is about to embark on a sweaty exhausting journey with no set destination and it takes him awhile to come into focus.

As protagonists go, Adam is a passive blurry character. He lets his loud friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) control their friendship. Even though he's only just given her a dresser drawer, his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is calling all the relationship shots - including no blow jobs which infuriates Kyle on Adam's behalf. Adam seems content to sit back and take whatever life does or doesn't offer him. Enter: Cancer. His diagnosis happens very early in the movie in a suitably disorienting scene where the only word from the doctor's mouth that Adam can latch on to with any understanding is  "Cancer". Adam is soon whisked into chemotherapy and it's the treatment that begin to control him. He sits back and takes in his new painful reality with something like peaceful acceptance. Or does he? Just how much is this ever-accommodating guy absorbing? 



His therapist (Anna Kendrick) sees through the calm facade but doesn't yet have the skill - she's only a grad student - to shake him from what she sees as numb shock. His overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston, just superb in an agonizingly small role. More! More!) could worry him right out of peacefulness so he ignores her.  

Despite the intense focus on Adam and his life-threatening illness, the movie is generous enough to make sure that each of its supporting characters get at least one scene wherein you suddenly understand how hard Adam's illness is for them when they're offscreen. Except Rachael, that is. Between this and The Help Bryce Dallas Howard is in danger of becoming shorthand typecasting for Detestable Woman You're Supposed to Hate. It's a blemish on this otherwise kind-hearted movie that it takes such joy in hating her. In fact, it actually burns her in effigy!

5050-shaving To 50/50's credit, whether or not Adam will survive doesn't seem to be the driving thrust of the story. Instead 50/50 concerns itself with charting Adam's dawning awareness of his own feelings, collecting sympathetic obversations (Adam's relationship with an adopted dog is subtlely handled) and crude but funny diversions (Kyle is obsessed with using cancer to score them both sympathy-sex). It's in the slow accumulation of these laughs and details that the movie truly pays off. Out of nowhere your eyes are watering and the lump in your throat won't quit. Points of entry to Teary Mess Land will undoubtedly vary from moviegoer to moviegoer but for me it was a simple no-fuss scene in which Kyle passes out drunk and Adam heads to Kyle's bathroom only to discover his best friend's surprising reading material. The movie, like its bromantic central friendship, pretends to be casual but the feelings run deep.

Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, recently married offscreen, play a married couple who have a nightmarish experience in their new DREAM HOUSE. Anna Faris plays a single woman tracking down ex-boyfriends with the help of her shirtless neighbor Chris Evans in WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER? (Gee I wonder who she ends up with.) In limited release Michael Shannon has Oscar-buzzing apocalyptic nightmares in the unsettling drama TAKE SHELTER and Anna Paquin stars as a guilt-ridden teen who may have caused a horrible death in MARGARET. Don't be alarmed if Paquin appears preternaturally youthful. The movie, beset by post production and legal problems, was filmed before she ever fell for those handsome horny vampires in Bon Temps!


Finally, the New York Film Festival begins tonight with the premiere of Roman Polanski's CARNAGE (my review), an adaptation of the Tony winning play "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza. Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz (plus John C Reilly) make up the squabbling quartet. In short: Prestige movie season has begun, everyone marching towards Oscar though few will reach that naked gold man.

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  1. "It's in the slow accumulation of these laughs and details that the movie truly pays off. Out of nowhere your eyes are watering and the lump in your throat won't quit"
    This captures the movie so well. I saw 50/50 a couple weeks ago at TIFF and it was fantastic.

    Posted by: verybookish | Sep 30, 2011 6:27:41 PM

  2. Thank you for the review of 50/50. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I'm a huge fan of JGL.

    Posted by: Seven | Oct 1, 2011 2:19:15 AM

  3. Saw 50/50 last night and laughed so hard and then cried like a baby... Great flick. And JGL isn't bad to look at either.

    Posted by: Wayne | Oct 1, 2011 9:02:14 AM

  4. Ever since "Latter Days" I've been in love with Joseph Gordon-Leavett, he's Oscar material, I thought he'd get a nom for "Inception". He's already a force (of acting )to be dealt with & to say he's going places is too little too late, he's been "on top" for awhile...

    Posted by: Mark Penti | Oct 1, 2011 11:52:45 AM

  5. I also really liked the film. My only major criticism is that the physician depicted in the film, particularly in the diagnosis scene, comes off as cold, technical, and uncaring. This is not how the vast majority of physicians would treat a patient with cancer, particularly one this young. I have been a nurse practitioner for over a decade and have treated an innumerable number of cancer patients and I have never seen one treated like this. I felt it was unnecessary and distracting instead of adding to the seriousness and dramatic elements of the scene. Regardless, I still would grade the movie an A-.

    Posted by: Dr. Christopher Blackwell | Oct 1, 2011 2:46:49 PM

  6. Care provider, too. Cancer in young people breaks our hearts. We are not callous as a rule. You don't enter health care to be n a hole.

    Posted by: ganymeade | Oct 1, 2011 8:27:44 PM

  7. To comment on Dr. Blackwell's about the depiction of the uncaring doctor in the movie. I saw the film at TIFF, and Will, who wrote the screenplay (and who's real life experience the film is based on) mentioned in the Q&A that the majority of people who treated him were fantastic, but a couple of doctors were exactly like that - cold and technical. Overall, Will was extremely thankful for his treatment, since he's still alive to tell about it.

    Posted by: Will Green | Oct 1, 2011 8:35:56 PM

  8. If his girlfriend won't give him a blow job I will. As often as he likes.

    Posted by: joad | Oct 2, 2011 1:52:49 AM

  9. Also Bryce Dallas Howard played the role of deadly vampire 'Victoria' in the "Twilight" saga's "Eclipse"; another 'love to hate her' role. I also saw the dismissal of her character in 50/50 differently: Adam "ridding" himself of Rachael is symbolic of him ridding himself of his cancer. Sometimes I wish I could rid myself of such toxic and unloving people in my life. I don't see it as hating her, I see it as ridding yourself of a person who brought poison into your life.

    Posted by: Jim | Oct 2, 2011 10:12:11 AM

  10. Great article! I thought the movie 50/50 was awesome I didn’t originally plan on watching it. I was finally convinced by my coworker from DISH. She said it was awesome and I would like it. I use my DISH online feature to bring me the most access to movies and TV shows. This is a great source for access to thousands of movies TV shows and I can watch live TV. I can log on with my iPad and view right my DVR content. This is what I use a lot staying in motels, when nothing good is on. This will deliver exactly what I want and lets me get the most from my service.

    Posted by: Jay Lo | Mar 22, 2012 3:06:55 PM

  11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb in this film, which is well-written and tackles the subject of cancer both accurately and sensitively. Surprisingly easy to watch, heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable.

    Posted by: Leah Harper | Aug 8, 2012 9:57:30 AM

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