Second Opinion: 50/50 – Or, A Shakespearean Jester Addresses Cancer

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

Written By Ries

Ries is a writer, blogger, amateur explorer and full time United States Marine. He graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and is busy putting that degree to work writing elite movie reviews for sites like CineKatz. In his spare time he enjoys traveling, movie watching, talking to himself in the mirror and working on novels that may or may not ever be finished. Of all the things he misses about being a civilian, he misses his beard the most.

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the author

Ries is a writer, blogger, amateur explorer and full time United States Marine. He graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Bachelor's Degree in English and is busy putting that degree to work writing elite movie reviews for sites like CineKatz. In his spare time he enjoys traveling, movie watching, talking to himself in the mirror and working on novels that may or may not ever be finished. Of all the things he misses about being a civilian, he misses his beard the most.

  • Great review! That was fun to read, everything you said was perfect. I loved this one too.

  • Great review! I read the script before I ever saw the film, and I still got choked up watching it… And like you said, it’s just beautiful. I also thought Anna Kendrick was pretty great as well.

  • Tom

    Ries, this really sums it up. I absolutely LOVED this movie. I sobbed like a giant man-baby, but I came out of the film feeling better than I had in months. The strangest part is how you’re sobbing and then they’ll get you to laugh in spite of yourself. It’s an odd sensation.

  • I completely agree with you Ries. This was my favourite film of 2011 and I still watch it regularly. This is the type of film I’d be putting up for Academy Awards if I had the power. I think this is an under-rated and under-seen film, and I’d hazard a guess that Seth Rogen’s face has turned people away from it. Such a shame!

  • Great review I’m exciting to watch this film. Sometimes when times are hard we need to laugh. In the midst of several deaths in my family it is laughter and love that helped us through. Ill gather up my loved ones, and some tissues and watch.

  • I enjoyed the chemo group, I always like when Matt Frewer pops up in things.

  • Tom

    Excellent review!! I have to echo your thoughts on this, because I also didn’t think it was the “best” movie of all time — but some weird standard, but it is definitely an extremely well-made and important one. I”m really glad to see someone who was as passionate as I was about it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was excellent, and even Seth Rogen is surprisingly reserved. As serious as the material is, I appreciated — like you said — the humor that ran throughout, which allowed us to steer our minds and emotions to better places while watching an extremely serious conversation unfold about the cold hard facts of life.

  • Beautiful review, Ries! One of my favorites from 2011. Fantastic writing, lovable characters and an amazing cast.

  • Ries

    Thanks, Brittani. 🙂

  • Ries

    I forgot to mention Anna’s performance, which is funny because I just watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World last night. (My next review.) She’s very versatile, and it’s interesting to see her in different roles. I think my favorite role by her is to be found in 50/50, it felt more in line with her natural personality. She seemed to really flower in the role, and is a lovely young woman. Thanks for reading, Shane.

  • Ries

    Catharsis! And yes, I was a giant man baby, too. It’s one of those movies that really makes you look at your life and smile, doesn’t it? Somehow it’s a “You don’t value your life enough” film that manages to get that message across without every making you feel like crap. Thanks for reading/commenting.

  • Ries

    It’s true. Seth Rogen has a tendency to polarize viewers or – in this case, infinitely more tragically – give the wrong idea when it comes to what kind of a film it is. I mention 50/50 to people, they ask me who’s in it and I say “Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen” and they say either “Oh, I don’t like Seth Rogen” or “Oh, I love Seth Rogen!” and I then proceed to locate a sink and drown myself in it. I would’ve put it up for Best Picture, myself, but alas. I am not on Olympus.

  • Ries

    Absolutely a family film – provided your family doesn’t mind coarse language and blunt sexuality. It’s like a family film for adults, if that makes sense. Children may not be as…amazed. Anyone over a certain age (don’t ask me what age) will be amazed, however. I’m sorry to hear your family is going through such a hard time, Belinda. Films like this will certainly be appropriate. My prayers are with you and yours.

  • Ries

    Matt Frewer adds two awesome points to anything. He needs to pop up in my life and call me out on my bullshit.

  • Ries

    I think films vary in a risk to fulfillment ratio. A movie that makes enormous risks and does so well gains a lot of respect in my book. 50/50 is that strange film that took enormous risks, handled them all with classic verve, but nobody was watching because nobody believed it could actually work. It’s unfortunate, but sort of inevitable. A sleeper classic, maybe? Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom.

  • Ries

    Right? I completely agree. Thanks for commenting, Fernando. 🙂

  • Michael

    Great review Ries and thanks for lawyering this film to me in the first place. I think you’re correct – the ability that 50/50 has to laugh at itself while always remembering whats important makes watching the film a relief. Seattle makes for a perfect setting. The box should smell like that “just washed by rain” scent.

  • Ries

    I hadn’t thought of this film as a relief before, but that’s a good way of seeing it. The Pacific Northwest seems to be a great place to make interesting movies (think Chronicle, Sleepless in Seattle, 50/50, etc…)

  • Zoe

    I really enjoyed this movie as well as your review!

  • Ries

    Thanks, Zoe! 🙂

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