By Chi Le
HANOI, Vietnam – “What are your chances? What are your odds?” says one character to another.
“I don’t know, man. I mean I looked it up and it said 50/50 but that’s like the Internet so…”
“It’s not that bad. It’s better than I thought. You’ll be fine, man. You’re young. Young people beat cancer all the time.
… You’ll be fine. 50/50! If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.”
That’s a little prelude to the movie title that may send you to bewilderment – though only for a little while. 50/50, released in 2011, is a comedy-drama film on the topic of cancer survival directed by Jonathan Levine.
Funny as it seems, a keen cinema-goer cannot truly acknowledge his “authority” without listing at least one movie shedding light over the subject of “cancer.” But even the keenest, I believe, cannot overlook 50/50 for its novel approaches to the seemingly old chestnut.
The movie centers on the story of Adam Lerner, a 27-year-old radio programmer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Adam’s life is significantly changed by the unforeseen diagnosis of a spinal tumor. His best friend, Kyle, played by Seth Rogen, conceitedly showcases a not-necessarily-valuable resource of dating advice. Also, he lives away from an overbearing mom, Diane, played by Anjelica Huston, who now devotes full care and attention to her husband, who is debilitated by Alzheimer’s disease.
On his relationship status, Adam has a girlfriend, an aspiring painter named Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Their bond does not last long, though, as the viewers can soon pick up the harbingers of a breakup. In addition, as the movie wears on, Adam is loath to receive assistance from the dedicated psychiatrist Katherine, played by Anna Kendrick, to alleviate the cancer treatment’s load on him.
Generally speaking, the gist is simple: a fine young man finds out he has a malignant tumor; he subsequently endures shock, pain and anger before he learns the right way to win the battle. However, it is extremely hard to call the plot clichéd for all the details that more or less reflect the real experience of a cancer patient.
The screenwriter, Will Reiser, having had a close call with cancer himself, knows exactly which specific aspects of story to convey and how to accomplish it. Viewers are led into the world where people greet each other with their names and their medical states. They are shown an actual conflict of emotions that people with cancer must go through before they pick up the pieces and fight against death.
More notable, Reiser does not forget to add a tinge of eccentricity to the lead character, stirring up the solemn atmosphere pertaining to almost every movie of the same subject.
Together with an authentic screenplay, right camera angles help usher the audience into a third-person position perfectly. The camera follows Adam from the moment he embarks on the harshest time of his life; occasionally, it bounces back and lifts up to give a broader view of the overall scenario. Moreover, director Jonathan Levine gradually reveals each and every state of the story so that viewers can always maintain a sense of breathing and living with the characters.
Gordon-Levitt seems tailored to play the lead role. Through genuine, and not at all monotonous expressions, Adam’s inner feelings are laid bare for the audience to sympathize and identify with. Not only does he become the character and the character’s personal story is his, he turns it partly into ours as well.
It is interesting to note that Gordon-Levitt has already made a name for himself after the highly acclaimed performance alongside Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer. Nonetheless, only with 50/50 is he officially hailed as the “It boy” of independent movies – and he definitely lives up to the title.
Another role worth discussing is Rogen’s portrayal of Kyle. As Adam’s best friend, his actions occasionally come across as inappropriate, if not unacceptably apathetic. Kyle’s jokes, which I believe to be the key component in this so-called comedy, indicate a reprehensible lack of empathy. Much as I respect Rogen’s talent together with his instrumental role in the drafting of the movie’s brilliant script, his character just easily becomes the most fictionalized of all, leaving the audience with nothing more astounding than the idea of using cancer as a pick-up line.
Having been critically applauded after her outstanding performance in the 2009 dramedy Up In The Air, the role of Katherine proves to be not much of a challenge to the talented Kendrick. Though the script in general does not allow much space for Kendrick’s intricate emotional expressions, her performance offers something extra that makes the movie more perfect as a whole.
Without a doubt, 50/50 deserves a spot in the list of 2011’s top 10 independent movies. Even though it may not reach the bar that Oscar-winners like The Descendants or The Artist have set, 50/50 is always a rewarding experience for anyone who maintains firm belief in movies’ ability to convey pure emotions.
After all, with Gordon-Levitt shaving off his hair in the poster, you know it will somehow exceed your expectations.