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Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes ‘50/50’ more than disease movie-of-the-week

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, October 7, 2011 8:12 am

I often write about the importance of remaining optimistic regarding the state of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, but sometimes I find it difficult to follow my own advice. Case in point: As of press time, “Drive” — the intoxicating, trail-blazing Hollywood debut of Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding-Refn that may very well stand as the best film of 2011 — has plummeted to No. 11 on the box office chart after less than three weeks in general release, bringing its domestic total to roughly $27 million.

This would be less disheartening had the film not premiered in the No. 2 spot, suggesting that good word-of-mouth could have easily turned it into a $80 million smash (its production budget was around $15 million). This, as “A Dolphin Tale” rules the box office and the implicitly racist “The Help” (spare me the letters) continues to stick around, passing $160 million in domestic receipts.

Pardon the slightly off-topic mini-rant, but I just wanted to alert you to the fact that this is probably the last week you’ll be able to enjoy “Drive” on the big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to go out and experience one of the most hypnotically beautiful and visceral films you will ever see.

While you’re at it you should also check out “50/50,” the subject of this week’s review and another carefully constructed, adult-oriented film that will consequently drum up only a fraction of the business it deserves (it opened last weekend in fifth). News-Sentinel photographer Dan Evans has been excitedly praising it as some kind of profoundly inspiring, intrapersonal spiritual experience, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I do agree that it’s well-worth your time and money. Plus it stars the impossibly appealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so how can you go wrong?

Some movies have a way of sneaking up on you. You’ll be sitting there, getting lost in the story, and then a certain scene or line reading will jar you. You realize that you care about these characters and their story more than you thought, and the emotional weight hits you like a ton of bricks. Of course, if you’re enjoying a movie it typically means that as a viewer you have an interest in seeing how the story plays out. But in my experience it is rare to become truly invested in a narrative, to become so emotionally attached to an entire cast of characters in just 90 minutes — particularly when the film in question deals with a subject we’ve seen tackled a thousand times before, as “50/50” does.

Meet Adam (Gordon-Levitt), a laid-back 20-something radio journalist whose life is finally starting to get on-track. He finds fulfillment in his job, he has a loyal best friend, and his relationship with his girlfriend appears to be moving forward. Adam is content, but his world begins to crumble after a routine doctor visit to address some unexplained aches and pains leads to the revelation that he is suffering from a rare form of cancer. The survival rate, he learns, is roughly 50 percent. But Adam is young and otherwise hearty, and appears to have a strong support system to help him through his time of need. However, as Adam’s body degenerates from the chemotherapy treatments, he finds that some of his relationships may not be as strong as he thought.

“50/50” succeeds as a standard disease-themed tear-jerker, but distinguishes itself in the genre by recasting the narrative to focus on Adam’s personal growth — not in a glib, generic “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” sense, but in a way that carefully charts his personal journey from complacency to self-determination. This shift is demonstrated through Adam’s interactions with his conflicted girlfriend (played by Bryce Dallas-Howard), self-absorbed best friend (Seth Rogen), overbearing mother (Angelica Huston) and well-intentioned therapist (Anna Kendrick), and the film prefers to bypass cliché confrontations in favor of carefully observed drama that develops organically from these finely drawn characters.

The supporting cast is top-notch, with Rogen delivering his best and most rounded work to date, and Kendrick establishing herself as a promising young up-and-comer with a great sense of subtly (“Up in the Air,” it seems, was no fluke). But this is Gordon-Levitt’s movie, and he owns it from first frame to last. It’s an incredibly nuanced performance, brimming with a low-key confidence that becomes more pronounced as the story progresses. The film would amount to little without Gordon-Levitt’s delicate handling of this difficult role, but scene by scene he builds on our emotional investment in this character, and in the process elevates the material beyond “Lifetime movie of the week” status.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. 

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