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.
The Wackness winner of Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award compares favorably with some of the best teen angst movies of the past. It could have been just another stoner slack-fest but instead finds much to say and should resonate with not only those who also came of age in the ‘90s but anyone who ever crossed that frightening threshold. Set in the summer of 1994 when N.A.S Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast ruled the airwaves Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his last summer peddling marijuana out of an ice cart and trading it for free therapy sessions with his aging pot-smoking psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) who seems to be trying desperately to hang onto his own youth. Although the advice (“you need to get laid”) he hands out probably wouldn’t pass muster in most medical circles the two strike up an unusual relationship. Luke takes his first tentative steps into manhood courtesy of his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) while Squires must deal with a fading marriage to his much-younger wife (Famke Janssen). Peck--best known for Nickelodeon’s bubblegum sitcom Drake and Josh--exhibits great promise with his low-key simple performance as a messed-up pot-dealing teenager on the verge of adulthood. He could have played this as a straight stoner but instead is remarkably three dimensional offering a portrait of a young man in transition. He’s a guy whose problems with his parents friends and girls are just the tip of the iceberg in his own coming-of-age drama. As the other half of this very odd couple Kingsley seems to be relishing his role as an aging hippie therapist whose lifelong obsession with pot has clearly rattled his brain. Squires own confusion leads him to a hilarious “romantic” encounter with a dreadlocked little tramp played amusingly by Mary-Kate Olsen who is probably STILL talking about her make-out scene with the Oscar-winning actor. Also along for Luke’s quirky ride into manhood is Thirlby who showed great promise in Juno and confirms it here as a very confident young woman who deflowers the awkward Luke in a wonderfully understated bedroom scene. Janssen has little to do but look lovely while Talia Balsam and David Wohl are in for some brief moments as Luke’s difficult parents. And look for nice bits from Jane Adams as a new wave keyboard player Disturbia’s Aaron Yoo and Method Man as Luke’s supplier. It’s probably no coincidence young writer/director Jonathan Levine graduated from high school in 1994--the same year he has set for The Wackness. Clearly he knows the era and particularly the music which plays such a key role in setting the mood of this picture. Levine has passion for the hip hop sounds of the era and has effortlessly incorporated them directly into his storyline. Where The Wackness really departs from your average slacker epic however is in its seriousness of tone. At its core the film is not unlike classic teen movies such as Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Levine creates flawed almost tragic figures we can identify with in one way or another. That’s what holds this somewhat meandering tale together so well. We come to like these characters and wish them well as their lives are hovering at a crossroads. Levine’s filmmaking style is slightly awkward and the movie is unattractively lit but with The Wackness Levine captures a moment in time with great skill and heart.