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.
Oscar buzz continues at the box office this weekend as a few of the year's most highly touted films open in both wide and limited release.
Tom Hanks and company lead the way in the prison drama "The Green Mile," based on the popular series by Stephen King and directed by Frank Darabont. Five years ago, Darabont came to prominence with another prison-bound tale by King called "The Shawshank Redemption." That movie, which frequently tops lists of the most popular films of all time, garnered seven Academy Award nominations.
Other Oscar hopefuls include the limited releases "Cradle Will Rock" and "The Cider House Rules." "Cradle," directed by Tim Robbins and featuring an all-star cast, details the events of New York City's art scene in the 1930s. "Cider," directed by "What's Eating Gilbert Grape's" Lasse Hallstrom, is a quirky, coming-of-age love story adapted from John Irving's book. It stars up-and-comers Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron.
Those in the mood for lighter fare (especially fans of the Adam Sandler/Chris Farley set) should be delighted by the release of "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." Rob Schneider, another "Saturday Night Live" alum and frequent co-star in the Sandler films, gets his chance to play dumb as a pool cleaner turned first-class male hustler.
Smaller films vying for attention in limited engagements are "Diamonds," a road movie about family relationships co-starring Kirk Douglas and Dan Aykroyd; "Miss Julie," a sexy affair starring "Deep Blue Sea's" Saffron Burrows and directed by "Leaving Las Vegas'" Mike Figgis; and "Wallowitch & Ross," a documentary covering the careers of entertainers John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross.
The following is a complete list of all the week's releases.
Friday, Dec. 10, 1999
"Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" (Buena Vista) -- Rob Schneider stars as Deuce Bigalow, a down-on-his-luck guy who cleans fish tanks for a living. While fish-sitting for a debonair, world-class male escort, he mistakenly answers the business phone and becomes "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo."
"The Green Mile" (Warner Bros.) -- Set during the Great Depression, Michael Clarke Duncan plays a Death Row inmate in a Southern prison who possesses the unusual gift of healing. Tom Hanks co-stars as the penitentiary guard who, upon discovering the inmate's miraculous power and gentle nature, begins to question the man's guilt.
"Cradle Will Rock" (Buena Vista) -- Based on true events in the cultural and art scenes of 1930s New York City, this film follows various cultural workers -- including Mexican artist Diego Rivera, theater director Orson Welles and propagandist Margherita Sarfatti -- as they defend their artistic expressions in the face of political paranoia and government censorship. John Cusack, Bill Murray and Susan Sarandon co-star.
"The Cider House Rules" (Miramax) -- Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and adapted from John Irving's best-selling novel, this coming-of-age story casts Tobey Maguire as a young man who has spent his entire youth in an orphanage. Hungry for experience, he sets out to explore the world outside. Charlize Theron and Michael Caine co-star.
"Diamonds" (Miramax) -- In an effort to bond with estranged son Dan Aykroyd, former prizefighter Kirk Douglas takes his son and grandson on a road trip to Reno in search of 13 stolen diamonds, stashed away years ago. The quest for the hidden gems affords the men a lesson in fatherhood, reconciliation and the price of growing older. Lauren Bacall co-stars.
"Miss Julie" (MGM) -- Director Mike Figgis returns with a tale of sexual seduction and class conflict set at a wealthy estate. Saffron Burrows stars as an affluent count's sexually wanton daughter who begins an ambivalent and destructive affair with an opportunistic servant, played by Peter Mullan. By the end of the night, the illicit liaison pushes the emotionally unbalanced heroine toward a certain self-destructive act.
"Jerome" (Phaedra) -- Drew Pillsbury plays a man who abandons everything he knows -- his wife, his son, his job -- and heads across the desert to Jerome, Ariz., to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Despite his determination, the hapless dreamer gets sidetracked when an iconoclastic female drifter, played by Wendie Malick, crosses his path.
"Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment" (First Run) -- Written and directed by Richard Morris, this moving portrait details the career and partnership of entertainers John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross. The documentary recounts from the beginning when Ross was a principal dancer for Martha Graham and Wallowitch was a gifted Juilliard student. Their initial meeting in New York paved the way for an enduring collaboration and a lasting romance.
"Sweet and Lowdown" (Sony Pictures Classics) -- In Woody Allen's latest, Sean Penn plays musician Emmet Ray, a self-proclaimed jazz guitar genius of the 1920s and 1930s. The bigger-than-life portrait follows the eccentric personality through his notorious career as he clashes with lovers, friends, enemies and gangsters in New York City. John Waters and Uma Thurman co-star.
"42 Up" (First Run) -- In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted began his marathon documentary series about the lives of a group of 7-year-old kids in England, each from radically different socioeconomic backgrounds. Since then, the director has continued to chronicle the ups and downs of his subjects at 7-year intervals. The sixth installment is the latest update on these people at the crossroad of the big 42.
"Tumbleweeds" (Fine Line) -- Leaving an abusive boyfriend behind, single mother Janet McTeer and daughter Kimberly J. Brown head for the sunny suburbs of San Diego to start anew. Once again, McTeer swiftly enters into a destructive relationship and is tempted to look for an easy way out. However, her headstrong daughter, tired of her rootless existence, refuses to abandon her newly established life.