Sunday, October 9, 2011
Bertolt Brecht was an influential scholar of theater during the 20th century. Brecht's thoughts and theories centered around a philosophy in which the theater was meant to be a representation of reality - rather than reality itself. Brecht's plays made deliberate attempts to alienate the audience from the emotional occurrences on the stage - he wanted people to evaluate the messages on stage critically, and felt that if attempts at "realism" came into play, the audience risked complacency.
Fast forward several decades and many of his ideas still have a very firm root in both theater and film. With movies, audiences deliberately suspend disbelief (sometimes more so with certain movies than others) in order to be entertained. Even in movies with realistic premises and characters, a certain measure of "staging," if you will, goes into their production and as such we as the audience are often ever-mindful of that age-old phrase: "It's only a movie."
What does all that have to do with the movie 50/50? Well, it has nothing to do with it - and that's what it has to do with it. No, you didn't read that wrong - just keep going.
50/50 is a very straightforward film: Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is diagnosed with cancer - the film follows the ways in which his life changes and the reactions of those around him. Sounds fairly dry - but the result is anything but.
Many dramas (and even comedies for that matter) attempt to address real-life situations such as drug problems, loss of loved ones, or terminal illness. And while many a film has climbed to the top of the Oscar ladder squeezing every drop out of narrative and pathos possible, each one of them in retrospect featured a good deal of "staging," like I mentioned before. It's not a flaw per se, but most of the movies coming to mind (A Beautiful Mind, Philadelphia, Brian's Song - those are just the first three that came to mind as I typed) were carefully crafted to be achievements of film. Not that they weren't honest or powerful, quite the opposite - at least in the case of those I've mentioned. But what I'm getting at is 50/50's crowning achievement is its ability to truly depict "life" without making it feel like a movie. There's emotional music, there's great cinematography, there's fantastic editing - all of the factors that go into making a good movie are prominently on display here. But 50/50 somehow manages to transcend its own medium and become more than just a movie.
As I watch the film, I am consciously aware that writers wrote each line of dialogue. I'm aware that likely many takes went into a given scene, and that everything that normally has to happen to make a movie also happened - just like it would have with any other movie. But somewhere amongst an honest script, a veritable gourmet of fine acting, and even a stray cliche or two - 50/50 managed to become more than the substantial sum of its parts. I've never been in the situation presented to the principle characters of the film - but watching each of their reactions I can't help but believe that thousands of people have lived these very circumstances and reacted the exact same way. Seth Rogen (who plays Kyle, Adam's well-intentioned but slightly obtuse best friend) is an actor I don't particularly enjoy watching very much. But his awkwardness and occasional bafoonery bears a strong sense of sincerity here. For all his baby-facedness, Joseph Gordon-Levitt exudes the kind of emotional upheaval one would expect from someone in his circumstances. We watch him run through the entire "5 Stages of Grief" like a textbook demonstration - but he manages to imbue every moment of his time on screen with a kind of earnest distress that goes beyond just another gut-wrenching performance. Anna Kendrick, who plays a doctoral psychology candidate assigned to aid Adam with his therapy, is just as charming as she is reservedly confident of her credentials.
Bryce Dallas Howard is another solid home-run from a casting and acting perspective. I'm not used to seeing her portray a character as vapid and naive as she does in 50/50, but her turn as Adam's wayward girlfriend continues to solidify this film's already-in-the-bag status as perfect blend of comedy and drama.
As part of growing cinematic tradition towards more personal and "realistic" pieces, 50/50 also features a soundtrack that's reflective of a growing mainstream trend towards non-mainstream trends. And as much as I hate the whole hipster subculture and their obsession with obscure artists, 50/50 balances old-school tunes with new-school indie music to pitch perfection. Pearl Jam shows up, as do the Bee Gees - right next to Cut Copy, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and of course Michael Giacchino's delicate original score as well. It's an emotional blend, no doubt about it - but it never strays too far into the realm of sappy or overly sentimental.
Profanity has never bothered me. And as an extension of this, I personally believe that people live in a much more PG-13 to R-rated world than they often profess. So for me, the level of profanity (which is pretty high) and innuendo in this film only serves to further it as a movie that is genuine and unabashedly sincere. Having said that, I know plenty of people who will find 50/50 to be too crass, crude, or what have you. That really shouldn't come as a surprise though, given Seth Rogen's presence as both co-star and co-writer. So do with that what you will.
Same goes for the drug/alcohol content in the film. It's not something that I found distracting or offensive but it will likely deter more sensitive viewers.
See this movie, as soon as possible. Seriously. There's a reason it has a 90-something on Rotten Tomatoes. If you're thinking this is another Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow type outing where raunchy comedy and "realistic" drama collide you'd be wrong. 50/50 does blend comedy and drama to perfection - but this is not Knocked Up or Superbad or Funny People. This movie is truly genuine, truly sincere, truly honest in a way that I can't come up with a comparable title at the moment.
50/50 prides itself from not shying away from the "ickier" elements of terminal illness - from Adam's debilitating chemo side-effects, to the gradual alienation that occurs as Adam slips into depression, right up to the tear-jerking goodbye moments right before Adam goes into a last-ditch surgery. I won't tell you how the film ends, because take my word here - you owe it to yourself to find out by seeing this movie.
I know it all sounds like another Hollywood Heart-Job that requires a 3-sniffle minimum - but somehow it manages to not be. This is partially aided by some tactfully placed handheld camerawork (no J.J. Abrams crap though, thankfully) - the rest of exactly how this movie manages to be so non-cliched is honestly a mystery to me. It goes straight for powerful and moving and completely bypasses the whole "sad-music-and-slow-motion" tropes I was expecting.
50/50 is another indication of how much cinema has evolved in a very short time - a good deal of which is simply the reflection of shifting cultural norms. But it's also a monumental cinematic achievement in that it's not your typical monumental cinematic achievement. It's just honest and genuine - without being what "honest and genuine" usually means in a film review; there's not a modicum of self-importance in this piece.
So in summary, to use a tired cliche with a truly non-tired cliched intent: I laughed, I cried, it moved me. And it did. It really, really did.