Friday, May 25, 2012

50/50 - A Review

I first heard and read about 50/50 while in New York last September, with a distinct memory of a making-of segment on continuous loop on a TV screen in the back of a taxi which was hurtling through traffic.

What followed was lots of Oscar buzz, but somehow, no major nominations materialized, and I stored this title for consumption at a later date.

I don't know why it took me more than 6 months to sit down and watch it. Maybe it's the subject matter: young guy diagnosed with cancer. I mean, I'm all for "indie" films, but I see enough death and illness daily in the ER. I don't need more of it at home on the goggle box, my last place of refuge from depression and suicide.

So imagine my surprise when I ended up loving the movie, so much in fact that I would say it's one of the best I've ever seen, and probably the best where the cancer / terminal illness topic is concerned.

There're a few spoilers ahead, so you've been warned.

Where should I start?

How about at the very beginning, when we see Adam ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt ) jogging in Seattle? He stops at a red light on a quiet morning; the roads are completely empty; someone runs across the street but he stubbornly stays put.

Those couple of minutes pass by in the blink of an eye, but the significance is not lost on me, and the patient viewer will be duly rewarded throughout the rest of the film.

Adam's story is written by Will Reiser and partially based on his own experience with cancer, which I think adds a lot of authenticity to the script.

Although I say I avoid shows like this because of my job, another big reason is the fact that many such movies make a mockery of the situation. The characters are near death but look like a million bucks ( Autumn In New York, Sweet November ). Or they're dying and still super-horny ( Autumn In New York, Sweet November, Dying Young ). Or they decide to build a house ( Life As A House ).

Have you ever seen a really sick patient? They're pale, skinny, lethargic and have zero interest in screwing or swinging a hammer.

50/50's accurate depiction of Adam's struggle with cancer won me over immediately. After he's diagnosed, you never see him exercise ever again. He becomes pallid and tired, with dark circles under his eyes. Makeup, I know, but I appreciate the effort!

The film's appeal doesn't end there. Another surprise comes in the form of humour. Not heh-heh-chuckles funny, but laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Nothing is off limits - Adam's tumour ( "the more syllables it has, the worse it is" ), Adam's girlfriend ( too dirty to print haha ), Adam's friend Kyle's raging hormones and penchant for marijuana ( look out for the night blindness excuse :D).

There aren't many movies where every scene, every word spoken or unspoken, has significance. I'm a fan of "intimate" films, some of which are kooky, most of which never reach blockbuster status - Into The Wild, There Will Be Blood, Lars And The Real Girl, Shame - except maybe a handful like American Beauty, Dead Poets Society and Sixth Sense.
50/50 joins this illustrious list for its poignant script - which left me in stitches then in tears - and deft direction by Jonathan Levine ( who also helmed teen-horror-flick-with-a-twist All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, which I think is excellent by the way ).

But it is the cast who make the 100 minutes zip by so enjoyably. Seth Rogen, whom I've always felt rather ambivalent about, steals my heart with his sensitive portrayal of Kyle. Unlike most BFFs who are written as either clowns or psychos, Kyle is refreshingly real and familiar, possessing traits all of us would recognize in ourselves or our friends. His love for Adam gradually builds up momentum, until a simple but key scene late in the film - involving a self-help book - drives the message home.

Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, who plays therapist Katherine, turns in yet another sharp performance here. We share Adam's incredulity when she reveals her age and lack of experience, but their relationship evolves at a reasonable pace, and she soon proves to be extremely insightful despite her youthful appearance.

Anjelica Huston's Diane ( Adam's mother ) actually reminds me a lot of my own mom - protective, strong-willed and sometimes hard to handle ( heh ). But Katherine's advice that "You can't change who your parents are. The only thing you can change is how you choose to deal with them." rings true.

Even Bryce Dallas Howard's thankless role as the horrible girlfriend should be savoured. She brings a whole new meaning to the word "betrayal".

Last but not least, Joseph Gordon-Levitt deserves endless accolades for an absolutely dazzling tour de force. The role was originally offered to James McAvoy, who would've done a terrific job with it if he hadn't bowed out due to a family emergency. But JGL is marvelous despite stepping in a week before shooting began.

I've been a fan since his days on 3rd Rock From The Sun, and I couldn't be happier when he finally hit the big time with ( 500 ) Days Of Summer and Inception. Although already 31, he pulls off the role of 27-year-old Adam effortlessly, never sinking into melodramatic self-pity. If only all young people were as stoic as he is. :)

In any movie like this, the lead actor or actress' greatest challenge is getting the audience to embark on a journey with the character and push to the finish line, no matter how difficult or unpleasant it may be. What's even harder is transmitting the character's deep pain directly to the viewer. Sure, it's easy to shed a few tears during well-orchestrated moments. But there's a scene where Adam sits in Kyle's car and finally succumbs to his suffering, letting it rip with a gut-wrenching scream that hit all my synapses like a freaking sledgehammer.

I don't know how else to describe it. I hope you get my drift.

JGL was robbed of an Oscar nomination this year, and so was Michael Fassbender ( Shame ). I honestly don't know how the Academy of Arts and Sciences, which prides itself on recognizing excellence in film, can overlook 2 outstanding performances in favour of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who are practically mediocre in comparison.

I used to think The Artist deserved the Best Picture honour. Not anymore.

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