50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

Although it lays claim to a few genuinely funny bits, 50/50 is an excrutiatingly bad comedy about a 27-year-old writer’s bout with spinal cancer—he got it from a bad mattress, he quips to a bar pick-up—that (he learns from the Internet) gives him little hope of survival. Since Adam, who works for National Public Radio, is based on the author of the script, Will Reiser, who is still with us, life itself determined the film’s happy ending, although I’m not entirely clear as to the extent to which Adam’s medical experience matches Reiser’s. After an extremely long 100 minutes, however, I was glad for Adam, who is more of a mensch after his ordeal than he was at the outset. The agency of his transformation is two-fold, and convincing: the humbling ordeal itself; the acute, spectacularly good work done by his 24-year-old psychotherapist-in-training, with whom he falls in love and who falls in love with him first—almost immediately, in fact. However unprofessional it may be, the slowly blossoming romantic relationship between Katherine (heavenly Anna Kendrick, highly reminiscent of the young Liza Minnelli) and her patient is an element of the material much in its favor.
     Three other factors, though, help deposit 50/50 in the trash: despite its prize from the National Board of Review, the mostly stupid and lugubrious script that Reiser concocted; intersecting with this, the loud, misogynistic character of Kyle, Adam’s best friend, played without any redeeming nuance by Seth Rogen; and, above all, the worst filmmaking ever applied to a U.S. comedy. Discredit director Jonathan Levine with this: Exactly one shot in this film rises above the level of crap (a reaction-shot focused on Skeletor, Adam’s lookalike pet greyhound).
     And yet, as lousy and tasteless as this cancer-comedy is, I must recommend it resoundingly on one score—a seamless, thoroughly realistic performance of sheer brilliance: Anjelica Huston as Diane, Adam’s quietly heroic, worried mother who takes care of her Richard, who has Alzheimer’s, as well as copes as best she can with their son’s sickness while he, Adam, withdraws from her self-acknowledged “smothering.” I know, I know: Huston has given so many great performances, and so many of them have been in worthy films—then why endure a moronic movie even to see her great yet again? Well, this may be the finest performance of her career. It is certainly the best film performance of 2011.
     Philip Baker Hall (Robert Altman’s Richard Nixon), as a sick old man whom Adam befriends, is also excellent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Adam, continues to stake his claim to being the most flexible, most versatile American film actor of his generation.


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