TIFF Review: 50/50

50/50 (2011, directed by Jonathan Levine)

Dramedies so rarely work, it's a wonder they get made at all. The mix is a tough one to get right. If one element dominates the other seems forced, and if the two don't flow together organically the whole concoction comes out sour. It's like a bad mojito. Too much rum, or the wrong type of rum, and it becomes the kind of swill only a 15-year-old could pretend to love. Too little booze, and you might as well be drinking toothpaste-flavored water.

50/50 is a pretty smooth mojito, with a decent kick to it.

This is the part of the review where I describe the plot, so TalkBackers won't bitch about whether I actually saw the film or not and instead can bitch about spoilers. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a nice normal Seattlite who does pieces on volcanos for public radio that no one much wants to listen to. Things are inching towards getting serious with his sexy artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), and everything seems blandly hunky-dory... until the back pain that's been bothering him turns out to be a rare, nasty form of cancer wrapped around his spinal column which leaves him with 50/50 odds of survival at best. As he gets rushed into chemo all his assumptions about his safe cozy life, and indeed his safe cozy self-image, are ripped apart and he's got to not only learn to survive, but learn to live.

If that sounds a bit trite it's because it very easily could have been. The plot too often opts for charcoal instead of pitch-black, and the direction from Levine doesn't take any risks (when Radiohead's High and Dry kicks in on the soundtrack after Adam finds out he's sick, I nearly groaned out loud. What, they couldn't get Nirvana's All Apologies?) But that provides a clean canvas on which an exceptionally talented cast can work. There aren't any scene-stealers here, because just about everyone is locked in from the get go: Anjelica Huston as the mom hiding her own pain beneath suffocating concern; Anna Kendrick as the novice therapist still trying to define her personal and professional boundaries; Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer (!) as Adam's fellow chemo patients... there are simply no weak links. No, not even Seth Rogan as the asshole best friend who sees Adam's cancer as a great way for them both to get laid. But good as they are, they're all just satellites in orbit around an incredibly grounded, funny, moving performance by Gordon-Levitt. In every single frame of film he's completely invested in his character, and the honesty in Adam's mounting frustration and fear and rage is what truly makes 50/50 work. It isn't an over-the-top histrionic performance (in other words, it isn't Oscar bait) but it is an exceptional one, and it's just another bit of proof that it's long past time Hollywood realizes that Gordon-Levitt belongs in the conversation when talking about the best actors of his generation.

50/50 isn't revolutionary, and it isn't as good as the modern reigning queen of the genre, Terms of Endearment (which it kind of foolishly name-drops). But it's a hell of a lot better than it could have been, and there are moments on both the comedy and drama sides that stick with you for a bit after the credits roll. There's not much more you could ask for from a moji... err, a dramedy.

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