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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: 50/50

50/50 (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Jonathan Levine, 2011
Your best friend looks you in the face and tells you that he’s dying. Wait a minue, it’s not quite like that…He tells you that he has a rare form of spinal cancer and that his chances of survival, according to the doctors, are 50/50. (Which is, obviously, where this movie got its title.) What do you say? What can you say?
In 50/50, the best friend, a good-hearted loudmouth named Kyle (played by Seth Rogen), listens and points out to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — with whom he works (as a writer) at a Seattle radio station — that in casino, 50/50 would be the best odds at the table.
Overly glib, predictable wisecrackery? In the standard Rogenish glibmeister key? Perhaps. But in this case, Rogen actually was the friend who heard the bad news, and he heard it from his pal Will Reiser, a fellow comedy actor-writer with whom Rogen worked on “Da Ali G Show.” Reiser later wrote the screenplay for 50/50, based on his own experiences with that same form of rare spinal cancer, and that’s the script that Rogen has now produced and co-stars in. So we can’t exactly say he doesn’t understand the character or the situation. He does. He lived it. We didn’t.
Ditto for Reiser, whose surrogate character Adam is played by Gordon-Levitt with a self-effacing vulnerability, an unforced sensitivity, and a quiet determination to survive, that definitely suggests a real person, one we’d want to know, reacting in real ways. And since both of these actors are probably jokers in real life — comedy writers even more comedically inclined than the young NPR writers they’re playing in 50/50 — it’s likely they would talk and behave like this, and try like this to extract humor from even an awful, frightening situation, like a diagnosis of cancer.
50/50 is one of the better American comedies and one of the better dramas of the year, even though, at first glace, the subject matter seems an open invitation to bathos and over-sentimentality and a compensating over-reliance on coarse “life-embracing” comedy, and toward the kind of cute secondary characters that often pop up in movies like this — to supply little life-lessons, or to relieve the monotony of anguish. Writer Reiser and director Jonathan Levin and the actors elude most of these pitfalls, and others, and they do so well that we should really cut the movie some slack for anything it missed.
The movie follows Adam relentlessly but compassionately right from the early scene when he learns of the cancer, though his revelation to Kyle, through his sometimes unhappy encounters with his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), a mediocre painter whose will to sacrifice quickly evaporates, through his meetings with doctors, therapists, and fellow cancer sufferers, right up to the not-exactly-predictable climax. And even though we might not expect this mixture of heavy, near-weepy drama and sharp-tongued, sometimes bawdy comedy to work all that well, it mostly does.
I did have a slight problem with the character of Adams girlfriend Rachel, not because of the way Howard played her (she’d be the best or near-best actor on screen in many another recent movie), but because Rachel, and Kyle‘s acerbic hostility toward her, seemed a little
like comic payback, and the movie doesn’t need it.
 But I had no problems with anything Gordon-Levitt or Rogen did, or with Anna Kendrick as Adam‘s illness therapist (earnest, not consciously humorous, concerned with being professional, addicted to New-Agey music for her patients), or with Anjelica Huston playing a Jewish mother, or with Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as two terminal patients who befriend Adam, and who have both seemingly reached Stage Five of their journey: acceptance.
I’d like to say something about Philip Baker Hall — even though I‘m not talking so much about this movie (in which he plays a man facing his own death with some bemusement and a touch of rage) as I am about his many other movies. It’s just this: Hall is a great movie actor, one of the absolute best we have, or have ever had. His portrayal of a turbulent, sobgbing, screaming, semi-drunken, nightmare-stricken “Richard Nixon” in Robert Altman‘s 1984 Secret Honor, is one of the most amazing tours de force and greatest performances in all of American movies — and he was also great as Sydney, the quiet gambler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight and as Jimmy Gator in Magnolia and in many others, including the little supporting roles he often gets, and always perfectly fills.
Hall is 80. It seems a little unfair that, because of the intrinsic ageism of most American movies and TV, we mostly get only snatches of an actor like Hall, that he’s slotted for just supporting or cameo roles, and we don’t more often get to see him tear down the house the way he did in Secret Honor. We can’t say very much more about him because Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Kendrick obviously have the stand out roles here, and they do them beautifully and deserve all the praise they’re getting. But Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick, all young and hot and very gifted, can get almost all the roles they want, while older, plainer-looking actors like Hall can’t and didn’t.
I‘m not being fair — because Rogen is one of the producers here, and he’s no Ashton Kutcher or Robert Pattinson either. Rogen put all this together. He had to cast Gordon-Levitt in the last minute, after losing James McAvoy for Adam, and he cast or helped cast everyone else, including probably the director Jonathan Levine (whose earlier movie The Wackness would never have suggested a picture as good as 50/50 to me). And, of course he also cast Philip Baker Hall, maybe because he feels about his acting the same way I do. Rogen may be scooping up a lot of plums these days, and slobbering them down. But at least he’s taking chances, sharing the wealth and doing the best stuff he can.
The best he can, the real Seth Rogen scenes here, are the ones where he watches Adam shave his head and the one where he takes Adam out to a bar to get laid (after Rachel walks) and explains that he’s going to use sympathy games and play the cancer card for his buddy. This is the kind of scene that, told baldly like that, seems tasteless, and might be in other hands, but that actually plays both funny and sad — and the kind of funny that trumps sad.
50/50 is not a perfect movie. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s one of those movies where, when you hear the premise, you may be convinced that it can’t possibly work. But it does. Reiser’s and Rogen‘s show fulfills its goal. It moves us and makes us laugh. It‘s honest, true, very well done, the kind of movie we should see much more often. Reiser does what an artist should do: He uses his life and his technique to illuminate the lives of all of us. As for Rogen, he may be loud, he may act obnoxious (deliberately), and he may make a shtick out of talking dirty. But this movie shows he’s a good, if wild and woolly, friend and a good actor, on screen and off. So, apparently, are Gordon-Levitt, and Kendrick. And Philip Baker Hall.
Reiser, by the way, is in remission. I won’t tell you what happens to Adam, but I will tell you that you’ll probably like this movie, even if you’ve lost someone you loved to terminal illness. Maybe especially if you’ve lost someone.
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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: 50/50”

  1. olgarichman says:

    No one should have to go the journey of cancer alone;

  2. Sally says:

    Great review — I want to see this.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon