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50/50

I like 50/50, its characters and the actors who play them. I like the sad-sweet way it tells a story about cancer, not exploiting it for our tears. I like its diluted indie sensibilities. Here is a film that tackles a difficult subject with a light heart and somehow feels more real as a result. I guess it’s because people seldom live their lives in melodrama. 50/50 succeeds because it refreshes a deadbeat genre, working small miracles within the context of its well-worn story.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a twenty-seven year old guy living the twenty-seven year old guy’s modest dream. He is fit, can’t drive, has a beautiful girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and works at a local radio station editing audio tracks. Kyle, his potty-mouthed lug of a best friend, drives him around, making him late for work by stopping for cappuccinos. Life isn’t perfect, but it’s been okay to Adam so far.

Everything changes when his doctor breaks the news to him: Adam has been diagnosed with a rare type of cancer in his spine, likely a result of genetic mutation. His girlfriend becomes pampering but distant. His mother, already burdened with a husband stricken by Alzheimer’s, is beside herself with worried grief. Only Kyle appears to act naturally, but beneath his rowdy exterior he’s hurting like everyone else. Not surprisingly, Adam himself is hit hard by the tragic news. To help him cope, the doctor sends him to Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a medical student working for her Ph.D. in psychotherapy.

As I watched Seth Rogen standing on the cappuccino line making awkward sexual comments, I couldn’t help doubting his place in 50/50. The tone of the movie seemed too delicate for the heavyweight crassness Rogen usually brought to the table, and here he was, continuing the trend. But even though 50/50 could probably have done with one less sexual reference, Rogen’s Kyle grew on me over the course of the movie’s emotional ups and downs. Rogen is a comedian with the uncanny gift of manipulating shabby masculinity into lovable humanity in virtually any situation. His contributions as Kyle are both effective and endearing. As always, Rogen chooses to act outwards; here it works, not just as comedy but as comic relief from an otherwise painful story. He may be a little annoying at first, but in the end we love him for it.

While I’m at it, I will also profess my affection for Anna Kendrick. There is something about her bouncy, nervous gestures and guilelessness that never fails to make me glow a little on the inside. Like Kendrick’s Natalie in Up in the Air, Katherine is a young woman whose perceived maturity hasn’t quite caught up with her professional career. Although on the fast track to a medical degree, Katherine is still very much a part of the ambitious, social networking generation of today. Her scenes with Adam are delightful to watch. He is mildly spunky. She is serious and just a little clueless, enough for a bit of charming – and sweet – comedy to ensue.

Next to Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon Levitt is probably one of the most rapidly rising young stars of the new decade. Having gained fame in the independent film industry with Mysterious Skin and Brick, Levitt broke through to a wider audience with (500) Days of Summer and has since advanced to such blockbuster vehicles as Inception. Levitt embodies the ideal universal star. He’s handsome in a mildly rugged, boyish kind of way, strong but not diamond sculpted and capable of expressing a wide range of emotion; he has the screen presence of an everyman. He’s that son parents recognize, that brother you’ve never had, that guy your sister dated back in high school and that friend I grew up with. Watching 50/50, I felt genuinely empathetic towards Adam, an average guy dealing with heavy circumstances. Even when its screenplay veers into autopilot, 50/50 is always engaging because it presents us with interesting, believable characters we come to care about.

And that’s why I recommend 50/50. It’s not a visionary achievement, but it sits nicely on the emotional spectrum as an indie dramedy with heart. It succeeds because of its characters, which the actors play with ease. It’s the kind of movie you can watch any day at any time to feel good about life and people. That in itself is something special.



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