Movies don’t require perfection to be, or at least feel, great. This likely goes without saying, but sometimes a film just comes along and runs through a routine you’ve seen hundreds of times, stumbling once in a whie along the way, yet remain so charming that those faults fade in the recollection.
50/50 is a prime example. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) and featuring a script by first-time screenwriter Will Reiser, the movie is about 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a radio-journalist with a quiet demeanor. His days are spent with his best friend/co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen) and his aspiring artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). Adam’s life isn’t great, but it’s sufficient. However, his back has been notably painful of late and a stop by the doctor’s office for a simple diagnosis provides a terrifying revelation; cancer.
As one might expect, life is thrown upside down for Adam. His mom (the ridiculously entertaining Anjelica Huston) is freaking out; her hands are full already with a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s. Rachael is promising to be there for Adam, an oath she might not be able or interested in keeping. Plus, the therapist Adam is sent to aide his fears is Katie (Anna Kendrick), whose demeanor is overwhelmed and baby-faced.
50/50 is heartwarming in the vein of dramadies by the likes of James L. Brooks and Jason Reitman. There is some shmaltz and simplicity that is nagging, especially in the one-note nature of Howard’s Rachael. She lacks the layers that the rest of the movie’s characters develop; a common trait for the actress which may reveal more about Howard than the screenplay. Thankfully, this is the picture’s only real misstep. The rest blooms beautifully, with the center emerging from Godron-Levitt.
As Adam, Gordon-Levitt is frightened without being melodramatic. Instead of relying on arm-flailing theatrics to depict his worries, the actor’s shoulders tighten, frame shrinks and voice falls over itself when trying to find the words. Yet, this also varies depending on whom Adam is talking to at the moment. He grows anxious around mom, open around Kyle and unsure around Rachael. In a role that lends itself to large gestures, Gordon-Levitt might be overlooked for the subtlety here, but this is maybe the best work of his fine career.
This same motivation is displayed by Levine’s directing choices, which ignores sweeping and weeping string sections. Levine allows comedy to blossom out of the situation, and while it might seem a bit frat-ish, it nonetheless comes across as honest. Rogen proves once more his talents as an ensemble player, particularly one in an uncomfortable emotional position. Kendrick is absolutely captivating as a young woman thrown into the deep-end. However, Huston is the scene-stealer. Her overbearing mother hits that sweet-spot between archetype and truthful. Huston blends the amusing nature of her smothering with the worry of a sick child to perfection.
50/50 opens wide all across Seattle today.