Sunday, 11 December 2011

“I liked the idea in theory”

50/50: directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Will Reiser

Adam Lerner is the epitome of the everyman. He has an overbearing presumptuous cad for a best friend, an over attentive mother and a girlfriend who’s not as besotted with him as he would hope. He recycles, he does not drink and he does not smoke. He’s such an everyman, and yet he contracts an incredibly rare genetic form of cancer. From the few adverts I’ve allowed myself to see of 50/50 it sets itself up as something like the anti-terminal illness film. True, our protagonist might have a life-threatening disease, but the presence of Seth Rogen, and a very easy but not overtly avant-garde vibe promises a film which promises more belly laughs than sobs. It’s a purpose I can understand. Contemporary cinema has been continuously trying to eviscerate oversentimentality from its canon, to look at the most mawkish of situations with the most objective of eyes and without sentiment. Maybe, I overestimate, though. Because, by disallowing the viewer to be caught up in strategically placed precipitants to tears 50/50 does not evade banality.
There is the slightest disinclination to get the claws out for 50/50 when its origins’ story is so quaint. At the behest of his buddy (Rogen), Will Reiser decided to put his own experience of being struck with cancer to paper as the basis for the film. Not only is the film, then, a not just metaphorical tale of overcoming adversity it’s also based on fact (to what extent, though, I’m not sure) so I’m initially doubtful of criticising it its inconstancies. Still, movies are movies – they’re not real. So, for all its goodwill 50/50 can’t go unscathed for all its good intent. In fact, its good intentions emerge as its most obvious crutch. Reiser’s screenplay is adamant in its attempt to convince us that our protagonist worth rooting for. In a vaguely awkward scene, after his best friend Kyle coerces him to pick up a girl using his cancer as the pickup line he ends up in bed with her. And, because Adam is such a chivalrous guy he proceeds to have sex with her even though it’s clearly causing him significant pain. It’s an interesting moment because Gordon-Levitt’s performance is the beacon of the film because of and in spite of the script. It’s hard to root against a guy who is so accommodating, but it’s also difficult to actively root for someone who is so pliable that he seems to have given up the ghost even before he’s entered the doctor’s office for the diagnosis.

The pliancy of the lead is not a problem in and of itself. It, however, becomes a bone of contention for two reasons. One, is that the film does not (nor attempt to) do a fair job of examining why this man seems so afraid to live. One of the first shots of the film is of a jogger running past him, which suggests an interesting inertness which we never really get to understand. Is it because his light is being constantly dulled by existing amidst a group of people all of whom are too selfish to eschew their own personal hang-ups to inquire as to how he’s doing? The suggestion is there, but I’d like to think that the examination of that issues in Adam’s life would have made for a more rewarding drama/comedy than the one we’re given. Because, as it is, Adam’s most significant act of being predictably “strong” happens against one of the film’s slew of conventional characters – Rachel, Adam’s emotionally unavailable girlfriend who drives him to chemotherapy and spends four hours in the car because she doesn’t like hospitals. I’ll impeach myself for being naïve and not immediately realising that this relationship was going to go kaput, and soon. For, like with a number of Rogen related ventures the film’s most exasperating quality stems from its treatment of women. Bryce Dallas Howard, who only recently was the resting pool for everything evil in The Help returns for a second turn at all that is evil in 50/50. I have to commend her for trying twice as much to make this particular carnation of evil work.
For a film that pretends it is interested in the reality of the disease the singleness of the narrative focus on Adam and Kyle robs Rachel of something as a simple as character inclination. She is an emotionally reclusive, cheating girlfriend because the film demands that she be expunged from the drama so that Adam can move on to younger, “prettier” and more caring things – in the form of his interim therapist Katie, played by Anna Kendrick. When Rachel returns, then, it is not for us to understand her character but to allow Adam to “grow some balls”, tell her off and proceed to take part in a cathartic trashing of her painting. And, it’s annoying situation because it becomes more ridiculous when the film end he has a similar outburst against Kyle who’s caddish is just as ignominious as Rachel but which the film skirts over because Kyle is honest about his ungallant disposition. And, it’s clear from Reiser’s script that he doesn’t mean to be mean-spirited about it because what ultimately stands out most clear from the film is its incredible good-naturedness. We know from its origin that Adam will not die, and as needs be we know that the reunion will occur between he and his mother, and when it comes it is as effective as needs be and when he gets through it all there will be an eligible bachelorette waiting at the finish line.
Ultimately, the very fact that it’s such an ostensibly difficult film to criticise – because of its origin – ends up making it rather easy to criticise because other than the concept of having a feel-good comedy about cancer, of all things, 50/50 teems with ordinariness. And, being ordinary is not necessarily an apprehensible quality so it ends up being an okay film. True, it teems over with occasionally misogynistic qualities but, it is so earnest in its attempt to be heart-warming that one is occasionally tempted to give it leeway. What we’re left with, then, is a standard dramatic comedy which intermittently leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth but eventually wears me down – not into loving it, but into appreciating that for all its generic meanderings it’s okay. Just…okay… Is it a waste of a potentially innovation journey into a stoic protagonist’s emotional inclinations? Yes. But, I’ll cut my losses.



Mike Lippert said...

This is, I must admit, although I liked it more than you, a pretty ordinary indie flick. It's like 500 Days of Summer but with cancer.

Dan O. said...

The mix of comedy and drama works so incredibly well here and it’s so obvious that everybody is on their A-game. Favorite film of the year I have to say man! Good review.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

mike that sort nails it. it's not bad, but it's ordinary.

dan sorry to rain on your parade if this was one of your favourites :(