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 IT’S ABOUT?
This follow-up to the 2006 smash hit Night at the Museum picks up shortly after the events of the first film with one-time museum security guard Larry Daley now living the life of a famous inventor. One night he decides to pay a visit to his old haunt the Museum of Natural History where he discovers that some of his favorite exhibits (and old not-so-inanimate friends) have been labeled as “out of date” and are being shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian Institute archives. In no time he gets a distress call from miniature cowboy Jedediah who informs Larry that a group of history’s most notorious evil personalities including Ivan the Terrible Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone are hatching a conspiracy. Together with their ringleader the 3000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah they plan to take over the Smithsonian and after that the world. Larry springs quickly into action teaming up with Amelia Earhart and tries to save his old friends — and perhaps the planet — from the insidious invaders who’ve awakened from their slumber.
WHO’S IN IT?
Ben Stiller returns as Larry playing straight man once again to a legion of historical figures including new and returning characters. Back from the original are Robin Williams as a spirited Teddy Roosevelt Owen Wilson as Jedediah Smith Steve Coogan as the Roman emperor Octavius Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea. Ricky Gervais again appears briefly at the start and finish as museum curator Dr. McPhee. Welcome additions include a lively Amy Adams as the famed female flyer Earhart and a very funny Bill Hader (TV's Saturday Night Live) as an insecure General Custer. Christopher Guest plays Ivan the Terrible while Alain Chabat has lots of fun as Napoleon. Jon Bernthal’s Al Capone meanwhile is cleverly shot and isolated in vivid black and white. Best of all by a mile — and the real reason to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — is Hank Azaria who plays Kahmunrah with brilliant comic timing and an affected speech pattern that’s highly amusing. The multi-talented Azaria (The Simpsons) provides the voices for two new computer-enhanced characters: a towering Abraham Lincoln and Rodin’s sculpture of The Thinker. Jonah Hill also shows up in an early scene as a Smithsonian security guard who confronts Stiller — a subplot that goes nowhere.
Although this follow-up suffers from a severe case of “sequelitis ” director Shawn Levy knows what makes this formula work for kids. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian deserves props as the rare studio blockbuster intent on actually providing a little education by making these important historical personalities come to such vivid life. Use of photos and paintings from the adjacent museums is the most inventive new wrinkle serving as a clever interactive device for Stiller to use throughout the flick.
The screenplay (again by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) rehashes a lot of what was fresh in the first film and the result feels roboticly recycled. Levy’s direction seems rushed at times as if the filmmakers are afraid anyone with an attention span beyond 30 seconds. Kids will eat this up but aside from Azaria there aren’t many laughs for Mom Dad and older siblings.
For pure visual-effects wizardry and wonder you can’t beat the gang’s arrival at the Air and Space Museum where the production actually shot for a week. It’s awe-inspiring. Amelia Earhart’s encounter there with the African-American Tuskegee Airmen is also a swell touch.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Multiplex but drop the kids off and go shopping instead.