As devourers of pop culture we're quick to categorize our entertainment for our own safety. Comedy drama thriller sci-fi horror—everything we have the chance to consume has a label to ensure that we know exactly what we're getting.
Occasionally a movie defies classification. While not a revolutionary piece of cinema 50/50 is especially gratifying simply because of its abandonment of genre and the baggage that comes with owning one. The movie starts with a simple inciting incident: one day 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns that he has a life-threatening tumor growing on his spine. Of course the news doesn't sit well with the public radio producer who's in the middle of work on an exciting piece for his station just adjusting to living with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and sees his life as a lengthy exciting prospect. Adam never smokes he waits to cross the street he always tucks his shirts in and keeps his sweater vests tidy—what did he do to deserve this?
But Adam doesn't go on a quest to find his true self or spend days writing a bucket list. He lives his life—and its friends and family who feel the tremors of his disease. Rachael quickly finds herself off balance and unable to cope with Adam's situation while his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) tries to coddle him finding a new opportunity she never found with her Alzheimer's-stricken husband. His co-workers throw him a guilt-induced party.
At a total loss Adam finds comfort in his pal Kyle (Seth Rogen essentially playing himself) who uplifts his spirits through dedication marijuana and loose women. Nothing seems to out-weigh the punch-in-the-gut feeling of losing his hair to chemotherapy or barely being able to walk around his house without feeling winded but Adam stays afloat thanks to Kyle's incessant goofiness and a newfound friendship in his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick). Equally out of water in her new job the two bond over their discovery of humanism in the scientific process of beating cancer and while the growth of their relationship is one of the few things in the film that feels remotely contrived it gives Adam hope in the face of his possibly-fatal surgery.
50/50 isn't sugar sweet nor is it stone cold serious. Director Jonathan Levine allows the events to unfold in a unique and reserved realism allowing the movie to bounce from laugh-out-loud funny (thanks in a large part to Rogen's star talent in a supporting role) to tearjerker drama without any broad segues. Gordon-Levitt has established himself as one of modern cinema's best watchers the type of actor who can float through a picture without making too much a ruckus but who's identifiable and helps us understand his surroundings. But he fits right in to the Apatow-style comedy Rogen and Levine conjure up throughout the movie. In one scene Adam chows down on some pot brownies courtesy of his elderly chemo-mates (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) leading him to groove around the hospital hall spaced out and loving it. It's an uproarious moment but poignant too—finally Adam can let go of a bit of his grief.
Providing a foundation for 50/50's minimalist tactics are the supporting cast. Howard once again proves her versatility turning an unsympathetic character into a dimensionalized presence. What Rachael does in the film isn't admirable but thanks to Howard's performance not entirely unreasonable. Huston and Kendrick are strong and grounded enough that when Adam begins to check out of life as surgery looms they don't disappear from the film. But it's Rogen who really steals the show perhaps because his friend and 50/50 writer Will Reiser based the movie on their real life experiences but the comedy-first actor steps up later in the film when the weight of reality starts to bring everyone down.
50/50 isn't a comedy or a drama but a portrait of real people surviving real hardships. Shedding a few tears over the course of the film is perfectly acceptable—the jokes are that funny and the emotion that powerful.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Set in 1985 in an alternate universe the U.S. is in bad shape. Nixon is running for his third term (!) war is about to break out with the Russians and superheroes have become outcasts in a world so complicated even THEY can’t get enthusiastic about saving it. When one of them a former member of the Watchmen named The Comedian is sent hurtling to his death by an unknown intruder in his apartment it brings his former associates forced into retirement back together (sort of) to help solve this geek-laden whodunit. Among them are Rorschach a sociopath whose face is concealed by a mask that changes patterns with his moods (hence the name); Dan a gadget nerd who used to soar as Nite Owl but now is rendered impotent in every way imaginable; Adrian who lives off merchandising his glory days as “genius” Oxymandias; Laurie aka Silk Spectre II still living in the shadow of her faded superhero mom the aging Sally aka the original Silk Spectre; and above all else Jon Osterman who as the result of a government accident has morphed into the physically imposing almost always naked and very blue demigod named Dr. Manhattan. He eventually leads a life in exile on Mars.
WHO’S IN IT?
Although the busy visual landscape and CGI nature of this sprawling comic book epic doesn’t usually lend itself to memorable acting turns this well-chosen cast acquits themselves nicely particularly Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) who manages to embody Rorschach with a Bogart-like noirish flavor. Haley’s Little Children co-star Patrick Wilson gives a quirky turn as Dan Dreiberg who longs to relive his Nite Owl days but seems stuck in a life cycle that has him spiraling downward into mediocrity. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey's Anatomy) also does a convincingly chilling job as The Comedian a man with very little morals and even less patience. Matthew Goode (Match Point) as the ego-driven Adrian doesn’t make much of an impression. Neither does Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) as Laurie who is pretty to look at but has some of the worst dialogue. As her mother however Carla Gugino succinctly portrays a woman who has seen better days. Billy Crudup has a few touching moments as Osterman but is mostly upstaged by his alter-ego Dr. Manhattan whose ripped physique and superhero powers steal the show. A lot of guys will want to sign up for this kind of CGI makeover.
Director Zack Snyder has taken Alan Moore’s revered “un-filmable” graphic novel and given it a movie life that crackles onscreen. Snyder is the real star of this show who first proved with 300 and now here that he is a cinematic visionary in a class by himself. Watchmen’s effects work is top of the line dazzling.
Snyder is almost too reverential to his source material. The movie is so loaded with plot and individual storylines that at 160 minutes it tends to put your senses on overload. A little less would have gone a long way but still Watchmen is like no comic book movie you have ever seen – and that’s a very good thing.
It has to be the opening sequence in which a fairly powerful intruder beats the whaley out of The Comedian and sends him flying through his high-rise apartment's plate glass window to his untimely demise on the New York pavement below. Gets the blood pumping right away.
After Rorschach has been arrested and thrown in jail he is confronted by all the villains he has put behind bars who all want a piece of him. But he tells them "You think I'm locked up with you but it's YOU who are locked up with ME!" Oh if they only knew.