‘50/50’ draws laughs and tears, but Gordon-Levitt owns it

Posted by · 8:44 am · August 18th, 2011

It’s probably a bit ridiculous that I haven’t seen Jonathan Levine’s “The Wackness” yet. I have the screener somewhere around here and it’s just one of those films I keep forgetting to watch, despite constant encouragement to do so. Therefore, “50/50,” a dramedy from writer Will Reiser based on his own experience being diagnosed with cancer, is the extent of my knowledge of the director’s work. And it’s fantastic.

Coming off “The Help,” I’m getting a little tired of crying like a baby in movies, but “50/50” earns those tears in more complex and special ways. It also finds the right pulse of comedy to balance the experience out and boasts a tight little ensemble with a natural vibe.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is front and center as Adam, a 27-year-old Seattleite smacked in the face with a cancer diagnosis. He has a girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who isn’t totally up to the task of dealing with all this. He has a life-long friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who keeps pushing the illness as a chick-magnet (and follows an arc that is ultimately touching and surprising, yet believable and organic). And he has a mother (Anjelica Huston) who worries herself sick, naturally, and longs for connection that she can’t get from her own Alzheimer’s-afflicted husband.

But this is Gordon-Levitt’s show. He gives is best portrayal to date here, mining rich emotional beats when they count and capably driving forward a character that could have come off a bit cliched. I was particularly moved by his display when heading off to a scary procedure late in the film and couldn’t keep the tear ducts dry there to save my life. He really finds something special in the emotionally charged areas of this performance.

Anjelica Huston doesn’t have a whole lot to work with as far as screen time goes, but she makes the most of it and reminds (if you needed reminding) that she can wrap a role around her finger.

Also worth mentioning is Anna Kendrick, whose nervous energy was perhaps a bit too amped up here, but whose therapist character Katie nevertheless settles into a lovely relationship with Adam that pays off and feels real. You can’t ask for much more, and Kendrick is clearly astute at these kinds of portrayals.

I would have said that the comedy from Seth Rogen could have been dialed back a bit, but in the end — if you’re paying close attention to highlights jotted on a bit of toilet reading — every bit of it becomes clearly indicative of why Kyle is such an important cog in this wheel.

Oh, and I’d also add that I’m particularly impressed with Bryce Dallas Howard’s role choices as of late, springing for unlikeable characters and getting under their skin without turning them into two-dimensional villains. That’s the mark of a professional and she has talent in spades as it is, so hers will be a career I continue to watch with glee, I have no doubt.

I hope “50/50” can find traction in the awards race. This and “A Better Life” are noble pursuits for Summit Entertainment, and I think a screenplay nomination is worth chasing. As great as Gordon-Levitt is, I fear he might get crushed in the sincere awards season glut of lead portrayals hunting a nomination, but maybe the HFPA can find room for him. Everyone involved really deserves a hard look here, but I’m just glad a film like this came off without a hitch and made me feel something real.

Now, where’s that screener of “The Wackness?”

[Photo: Summit Entertainment]

→ 47 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

47 responses so far

  • 1 8-18-2011 at 8:55 am

    kel said...

    Kris, you and Anne said the next Oscar watch will be the 28th, correct?

  • 2 8-18-2011 at 8:55 am

    kel said...

    whoops, my brain paused for a minute, that would be Oscar Talk

  • 3 8-18-2011 at 8:57 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 4 8-18-2011 at 9:01 am

    Brian Duffield said...

    Comedy at the Globes? That’s probably GordonLevitt’s best shot at gaining traction.

  • 5 8-18-2011 at 9:07 am

    James said...

    Now I’m psyched. The Wackness could use a rewatch. Its been awhile.

  • 6 8-18-2011 at 9:07 am

    Kevin said...

    I was able to catch this movie a couple of weeks ago in Phoenix and was incredibly pleasantly surprised by it. My thoughts are pretty much the same–a very strong cast with a top-notch performance by JGL, and an incredibly real-feeling script. I, too, hope it can find some sustenance ’til awards season–maybe it’ll make some strong impressions in Toronto.

  • 7 8-18-2011 at 9:18 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    “I’m particularly impressed with Bryce Dallas Howard’s role choices as of late, springing for unlikeable characters and getting under their skin without turning them into three-dimensional villains.”

    Wait, how is that a good thing?

  • 8 8-18-2011 at 9:37 am

    Drew said...

    Robert Hamer: How is it not a good thing? It shows that the actress is willing to take some level of risk and can offer a little more complexity to a role that may have been absent in the hands of another actor.

    Is it sad that there’s mroe stuff I want to see in September than the entire summer?m

  • 9 8-18-2011 at 9:43 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Robert: Should have been two-dimensional. Oops!

  • 10 8-18-2011 at 9:45 am

    Maxim said...

    I’m relieved that it’s not a tasteless or exploitative “comedy” that it appeared to be based on it’s original title.

  • 11 8-18-2011 at 10:29 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I said it a while back, and I hope by some miracle it happens, but I had a gut feeling that it could potentially be a Juno-esque hit with voters and this year’s token indie dramedy favorite. MAYBE. (Sure hope so, but trying to separate that.) That film tackled teen pregnancy, while this deals with cancer. Those weighty predicaments seem to lend a hand in favor at times….

    I also think the Best Actor category has one locked nominee (DiCaprio), one plausible contender (Dujardin), and then several others rivaling for those other three spots. If he’s pushed properly, it’s possible JGL could get his due this year, I think. A Golden Globe nom and even win would help greatly, but here’s hoping there’s momentum elsewhere from BFCA and other critics.

  • 12 8-18-2011 at 11:01 am

    Kevin Ketchum said...

    I knew nothing about this before reading your review. Just been added to my must-see list. Can’t wait to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt hit it out of the park.

  • 13 8-18-2011 at 11:13 am

    Dana Jones said...

    Kris, was Kendrick playing it similar to her role in ‘Up in the Air’?

  • 14 8-18-2011 at 11:47 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I won’t say that I loved “The Wackness” but I seriously enjoyed the hell out of it. The film caused me to have less respect for Ben Kingsley and see him as the dirty old man he really is — eww…ick.

  • 15 8-18-2011 at 11:51 am

    Rashad said...

    You’re not missing much from The Wackness. The lead was kind of annoying, and it tried too hard to play up the early ’90s of it all. Still, Thirlby was adorable in it

  • 16 8-18-2011 at 12:02 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I’ll never understand how people say certain nominees are locked even though nobody has seen the respective films yet.

    People thought DDL was a lock for Nine before they realized how poor the film was. The only actor or actress anyone can say is even close to a lock is Meryl because she simply gets nominated for anything remotely near the Academy’s wheelhouse.

  • 17 8-18-2011 at 12:08 pm

    ninja said...

    I`m glad that two Twilight actresses are getting great reviews for their non-Twilight work. Both were great in the sparkly franchise which is tough to do cause writing is pretty crappy so I`m very happy for their other work. I was wondering where Kendrick had gone but there she is and getting raves. Also this and The Help are one-two punch for BDH. Nice.

  • 18 8-18-2011 at 4:47 pm

    Jack said...

    SO glad to hear it. It is definitely my most awaited performance of the year as his performance in Mysterious Skin is personally one of my all time favorites.

  • 19 8-18-2011 at 4:56 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    I was never dumb enough to think DDL, my favorite actor for what it’s worth, was a lock for Nine. I never even predicted him in that regard because I had a hunch it would be crappy from the get-go. (It is a Rob Marshall film, after all, not Vincente Minnelli.)

    It’s perfectly legit to consider DiCaprio a lock. Biopic + Possibly-Gay + Eastwood’s penchant for getting actors nominations….I can’t see a situation where he won’t be nominated, especially for portraying such a conflicted and tragic character. Hell, if I were to predict a winner at this point, it’d be him.

  • 20 8-18-2011 at 5:37 pm

    PJ said...

    Kris, have you seen “Mysterious Skin”? If so, this performance as his best to date is high praise indeed.

  • 21 8-18-2011 at 6:00 pm

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    I wouldn’t necessarily bother with “The Wackness”…I found it eminently missable.

    I got really good vibes from the trailer for “50/50,” especially from JGL and Anna Kendrick. The latter was particularly pleasing, as I found her miscast in “Up in the Air,” and was hoping that she could get a role that was really good for her.

    The trailer did leave me rather iffy about Seth Rogen, but those who have seen the film say that he’s good, so I’ll wait and see.

  • 22 8-18-2011 at 6:07 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    PJ: I’m not much of a fan of Mysterious Skin. This isn’t as complex a performance by any means, but I think it rings truer.

  • 23 8-18-2011 at 6:43 pm

    Maxim said...

    “a Rob Marshall film, after all, not Vincente Minnelli”

    What is your point? At that point in time Marshall directed only two films and hardly deserved this kind of a statement.

    Also, Vincente Minnelli is overrated. I like “American In Paris” but “Gigi” bores me to pieces.

  • 24 8-18-2011 at 6:53 pm

    Afrika said...

    No amount of persuasion can make me suffer through Seth Rogen’s tired and douchey American frat boy comedy; nope! I also find Gordon-Levitt to be a tad bit overrated. Decent actor? yes! worth this surge of critical acclaim which has been brewing for over two years now? definitely no.

    These young white actors (Andrew Garfield and the rest) always attract a massive following, partly (maybe) because of their looks or their hipster appeal, who will make it their paramount goal to minimize every flaw and exaggerate every strength.

  • 25 8-18-2011 at 7:15 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    @Maxim: My point is exactly that. He wasn’t established; he made a solid first feature with Chicago, then followed it up with the tripe that was Memoirs of a Geisha. I figured based on the cast of names that it wouldn’t amount too much, and was right. (Although Cotillard still should’ve had Cruz’s nom.)

    As for Minnelli, I wasn’t using his name as a fan or anything. But he’s had a number of great films, both musical and non-musical. Although they’re from two different time periods, my point was that a name like his had more credo.

  • 26 8-18-2011 at 7:18 pm

    Filipe said...

    Afrika, that’s racist!

  • 27 8-18-2011 at 7:47 pm

    Justin said...

    I saw 50/50 about a week and a half ago at a screening in Salt Lake. JGL’s performance is good, probably won’t get an Oscar nomination but I could definitely see him get his second Golden Globe nomination.

  • 28 8-18-2011 at 10:38 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    @the Other James D-

    While I agree with your reasoning for DiCaprio’s lock (heck, I’m all for the guy winning… it’s about time!), he has played conflicted and tragic characters in the past and hasn’t gotten very far in the awards circuit- i.e Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island. Granted, Edgar is a different kind of character than the former two but it will be interesting to see if he can get past the “baby-face” stigma and truly evoke the iconic figure.

  • 29 8-19-2011 at 12:23 am

    julian said...

    Gordon-Levitt is vastly overrated in my opinion. He was a touching, human presence in 500 Days of Summer…for about 20 minutes. From there on he was just a nuisance.
    And don’t get me started on his lack of conviction in the bloated Inception. A laughable miscast. Almost as overrated as the movie he starred in.

  • 30 8-19-2011 at 12:36 am

    The Other James D. said...

    @Dana: Yeah, RR was his finest performance, imo. Awful snub, and in favor of Pitt’s lackluster portrayal, too. Shame. But I digress. Even though I, or we, may [both] still prefer his RR performance to J. Edgar, when it comes to Oscar favoritism, anguished real-life characters, (honored with good performances at least), often supersede the fictional ones. Not saying it’s right; just saying it frequently ‘is’.

  • 31 8-19-2011 at 12:38 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Random: My favorite JGL flick is actually, well, Brick. (Pardon the rhyme.) Terrific little gem of a film.

    Gosling, another fave of mine, usually garners more critical attention. But I think they both are neck-and-neck in terms of great performances they’ve been delivering for the past decade.

  • 32 8-19-2011 at 7:10 am

    will said...

    The Wackness is a pretty enjoyable coming of age movie. It’s not great, but it’s definitely worth a watch. If you can get your hands on All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, that’s also worth watching.

  • 33 8-19-2011 at 12:55 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    @the Other James D-

    Yeah, I definitely agree with RR being DiCaprio’s best (though I thought he was equally terrific in ‘Catch Me If You Can’) and a snub indeed.

    Side note I’m thoroughly pleased with your favorite actors- they line up quite well with mine- DiCaprio, Gosling, and JGL. Fassbender, McAvoy (I swear this isn’t an X-Men thing), and Bale are really starting to grow on me.

    Really? ‘All the Boys Love Mandy Lane’? I think Amber Heard has enormous potential (I’m thrilled to see her in the upcoming ‘Rum Diary’) but this film does not do her any justice. It starts off kinda smart, has other fairly decent moments, and then it lands in a pile of crud. The kids are so stupid, I can’t take them or this film seriously.

  • 34 8-19-2011 at 1:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    julian: Angry much?

  • 35 8-21-2011 at 8:36 pm

    DylanS said...

    Kris: I’m curious, how is Michael Giacchino’s score for the film? I wasn’t personally expecting much, but the material is a notable change from the usual for him.

  • 36 8-21-2011 at 9:27 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It was good, delightful, a bit of a different flow for him, etc.