I was never a big Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan. It’s not so much that I found the actor untalented, I just don’t believe I ever saw him in a role that I felt he was truly suited for. Hesher was a bit disappointing. I felt like he sort of phoned it in in Inception—although, his role didn’t all for much more than a whole bunch of incepting. But I do believe I always felt that Gordon-Levitt was just wading through these roles, building up his skill and notability, until he found the part that was tailor-made for him. And he found this in 50/50.
50/50 isn’t just about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character—it’s about every member of the young man’s life. JGL plays Adam, a twenty-seven year-old writer for radio who finds out early in the film that he has potentially fatal cancer. The events to follow cover Adam’s personal experiences with the disease, as well as those of his mother, best friend, girlfriend, grief counselor and fellow cancer patients. The movie is rooted in Adam’s journey, but we experience the journeys of everyone in his life as well.
But the weight of the movie lies on the shoulders of the man whose responsibility it is not just to make us care about his character, but also about everybody who surrounds his character. If Adam didn’t matter to us, neither would the overbearing grief of his mother (Anjelica Huston), the fumbling anxiety of his therapist (Anna Kendrick), or the detached defense mechanism of his lifelong best friend (Seth Rogen).
Gordon-Levitt’s performance commands all of that and much more. He is believably erratic without ever crossing the line into melodramatic. He makes us cry more than once, makes us laugh more times than that, and really, sincerely makes us feel like he’s going through a complex, surreal and terrifying journey from beginning to end.
Gordon-Levitt doesn’t make Adam a prototype for “living while you can” or “appreciating what you have.” He works with the brilliant script to deliver a full-fledged, multifaceted character who is a human being first and a cancer sufferer second. We relate to him foremost as a man—a sweet, obsessive, self-involved, fear-stricken and good-natured man—so that when we take the ride of the story along with him, we have someone to care about, rather than just the horrors of disease alone.
The actor isn’t afraid to vilify his character. Adam is just as often someone we might resent and find flaw with as he is someone with whom we sympathize. He’s not afraid to be funny, knowing full well that earning our laughter will not take away from the powerful struggle he is at once constructing. He is not afraid to let other actors command the room—Seth Rogen steals a few scenes. Philip Baker Hall is dynamite in this. Anjelica Huston will make you bawl your eyes out. Gordon-Levitt’s performance thrives, and is indelibly the movie’s strongest, but it is one that respects and works with those of his costars—most of whom are terrific in their own right in 50/50.
The movie is not a hard one to love. We’d be expected to root for Adam right out the bat: he’s a nice guy, and he has a terrible disease. In a lesser film, this might be all we’re given, but in 50/50, we’re blessed with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's an actor who transforms what might be a simple, easy grab for people’s sympathies into a hilarious, heartbreaking, laudable and loathsome human being, and an impeccable representation of a human being’s struggle.
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