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09.28.11

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Phaedra
SOMBER BROS: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen in this unusual comedy.

Can Cancer Be Funny?

'50/50' fights death with laughter

By Richard von Busack


50/50, whose alternate title could be So/So, has a pair of first-rate actors in the lead, Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Their work is regularly disrupted by Seth Rogen. In regularly scheduled bullish comedy moments, Rogen's Kyle turns up to rattle the cage of the seriously ill Adam (Gordon-Levitt).

Rather than just the sketchily drawn victim of a dread form of cancer, Adam may be a kind of a princeling. He's a bit remote, and it's interesting to see one of the best young actors around underplaying it while finding some humorous notes (a cool slow-mo saunter through the hospital, heavily stoned on marijuana macaroons).

Adam is vaguely a radio journalist, with a Charlie Parker poster, but doesn't seem to listen to jazz. He has a menorah, but doesn't seem Jewish in the customary movie sense: he's neither sarcastically verbal nor menschy. He's defined mainly by the contrast between the two girls in the picture. One is Adam's live-in Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, doing what she can with yet another punitive part). The other is Katie, the inexperienced grief counselor (Kendrick, unusually cast in a role of toothy embarrassment).

Rogen is the shot caller and a lecherous wreck. Rogen's ultimate contribution to cinema is taking the fun out of that game where you pretend that the hero and his buddy are lovers; with Rogen, bromance has to go ever further to get the outraged laughs, ever closer to the unambiguous, direct sexual come-on.

On the bright side, this may be the least spiritual film about facing death we've seen. And the mood is right: donating a fog-bound despair is Vancouver, clearly not the Seattle it's pretending to be. (No one worries about the hospital bills, for instance.)

Anjelica Huston is tigerish as Adam's mom, and Philip Baker Hall gives a surprisingly big endorsement of those magic cookies. As elder actors, they spice up the film in all the right ways.


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