Written by Will Reiser, based on his own experiences with cancer, the film details the ordeal of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an unremarkable young man who learns he has a rare form of spinal cancer. He’s got a smothering mother (Anjelica Huston), and a brittle, artistic girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who promises to take care of him, but we know she’s no good because she doesn’t like fellatio.
Gordon-Levitt goes through the rigors or chemotherapy, befriending two other men going through the process (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer), mostly through the shared use of medical marijuana. He shaves his head before the hair has a chance to fall out. But mostly he pals around with his old friend, Seth Rogen, a garrulous vulgarian who sticks by him, partially because it’s a good way to score with chicks.
Gordon-Levitt also undergoes therapy, and I guess by the luck of the draw gets a raw doctoral student, Anna Kendrick. She might as well be pictured by the word “pert” in the dictionary; she’s like a porcelain chipmunk. As the relationship with Howard goes sour (she’s played villains in two movies recently–she’s lucky if people don’t hiss at her on the street), the film explores the burgeoning attraction between therapist and patient. I’m guessing this part is fiction–not only is no guy lucky enough to get a cute, young therapist, but that she would fall for a guy with a sallow complexion and a shaved head seems stretching into the realm of fantasy.
What I liked about the film is the chemistry between Rogen and Gordon-Levitt. There’s many good lines of banter between them, especially cracks about Gordon-Levitt’s hairlessness (Michael Stipe and Voldemort are two figures he’s compared to). I find Gordon-Levitt to be a very appealing actor, and he’s fine here, despite his character’s lack of depth.
Which leads to what I didn’t like about this film: it’s lack of messiness. There’s too much patina, too many random details, too many fingerprints of the studio and design team. The film is set in Seattle, which seems random, and both fellows work at NPR, which also seems as if they pulled their professions out of a hat. NPR is going through tremendous budget cuts–no talk about that? Gordon-Levitt is editing a piece on a Hawaiian volcano (he seems to have months to complete it), but the topic lends no more significance than piece about anything plucked from a random Wikipedia search.
50/50 is occasionally moving, but I felt manipulated. Of course, all films manipulate to some degree or other, but I felt this. If this was Reiser’s story, it isn’t anymore, not after it’s been through the Hollywood mixer. It doesn’t really tell me anything new about the subject. I’m sure it’s horrible and transformative, but I didn’t get the full import of this from the film.
My grade for 50/50: C+