Here’s the thing about a film like 50/50. It’s perfect. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best film ever made – that honor, in my opinion, goes to Casablanca – but that does mean it never takes a false step. It never lingers too long on a single moment, a single emotion, a single idea or feels preachy. Yet it never feels like it plays anything safe. It takes calculated risks and they pay off, and the result is exhilarating It’s a film that I can recommend to anyone I know, providing they’ve got a brain in their heads and a heart in their chest. The most recent example of the dramedy that I can conjure to mind, 50/50 is a perfect – AND amazing – film.
Set against the sleek and rainy backdrop of Seattle, 50/50 weaves a narrative as funny and heartwarming as it is unforgiving and devastating. Adam (played by the Hollywood golden boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is diagnosed with cancer. His friends and family rise to the occasion, for the most part, and the film comes down to a fulcrum surgery, a sort of battle between life and death. I won’t tell you how the film ends, you’ll have to see what fate awaits Adam at the end of his journey. What I will tell you is that this is one of the purest stories I’ve seen on film.
What do I mean when I say pure story? Well, what I mean is that there’s little to no filler. The film moves breezily from sequence to sequence, always progressing our knowledge of its small cast of characters to the point that when the end comes around, we find ourselves utterly startled at how much we’ve somehow invested in them over the course of a narrow, emotionally taxing 95 minutes. We’re not watching Adam’s family wait for his surgery to conclude. We are Adam’s family, sitting with them, holding our breath. And life isn’t always kind.
These characters are markedly not perfect – Adam is sometimes petulant, often selfish, his friend Kyle is a womanizing slob who takes intense joy in bringing down Adam’s relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, played brilliantly here by the lovely Bryce Dallas Howard. Katherine the therapist is neurotic, nervous and something in dire need of a therapist herself. Diane, Adam’s mother (played marvelously by Anjelica Huston) is an overbearing, hyper-protective mother who annoys him with her rampant emotional paranoia. Yet even when all of this is said and done, these characters are some of the most precious to me in all of film.
I think what makes 50/50 tick is its willingness to laugh in self defense. One remarkable scene involves an extremely high Adam laughing at a body as it rolls by him on a hospital gurney, draped in black plastic. That sounds offensive, except in the film it’s not. I found myself wondering how the film achieved that identity of the Shakespearean jester. It makes jokes about things we ought to hang it for, and we can’t help but laugh at them. My own family has had intense dealings with cancer, so by all rights I should have been mortally offended by a scene that, when described, seems to portray a lighthearted approach to a monolithic emotional scenario.
And yet, there was something cathartic about that scene. It, like the rest of the film, managed to approach a devastating subject with a sense of reverent humor that is sorely lacking in most of my day to day conversations. We live in a time where people wear their emotions on their sleeves – a lot of people go out of their way to find reasons to be offended. 50/50 reminds us that this doesn’t have to be so. Humor happens at the place where honesty, cruelty and cleverness meet. 50/50 uses its humor like a heat seeking missile armed with weaponized catharsis. It locates its targets, punctures and detonates, leaving us with a big sphere of sparkling love for life and the people we share life with.
50/50 is also a strangely well shot movie. Shot with a crystal clear take on reality, every sequence in the film looks like a photograph. Watched in glorious 1080p, it’s a beautiful film. Light slips along blue irises and metallic surfaces with all the ease of mercury on oil on water. I appreciate films like 50/50. They’re like the answer to films like Apocalypse Now, where the camera shows us a panorama of chaos. They respond with a narrow, gleaming, edged world full of light and lovable people. The light is so crisp you could reach out and touch it.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a friend of mine who watched 50/50 and didn’t cry. Viewers beware, bring a box of tissues. Bring a few boxes of tissues. Gather people you love and couldn’t live without and bring them close. Gather your friends, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mother, your father, your ex, that random dude who spotted you fifteen cents so you could make a down payment on a direly needed double cheeseburger. These are the people who will be with you at the end when your life draws down into its final, desperate act. These are the people you will miss when they – or you – are gone.
To say that this is a depressing movie is to misrepresent the film. This is a beautiful film, a cathartic film, a tragic film, a sad film, a lovely film, and one that you will no doubt judge people on based upon their reactions to it. Is it the best film ever made? No. But it’s above a 9.0. I try and stay away from reviewing films that dip too far beneath that number. I, like 50/50, prefer to celebrate things than to lament them, and like a celebration of life that follows a recent death, 50/50 is at once crushing and liberating. Attendance is highly encouraged.
The Good: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Always.
The Better: The fact that he ceases to be Joe and turns into Adam.
The Best: That Adam is only as real and lovable as the people that populate his life. And they are all real and lovable.
Overall Score: 9.6/10