I am going to break with my normal habit of assiduously avoiding spoilers in my review of the film 50/50. I am also going to succumb shamelessly and repeatedly to my weakness for painfully obvious plays on words:
This film is aptly named as I half liked it and half disliked it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is worth seeing in the film if nothing else is. He plays an introverted character closing in on himself when he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that gives him 50/50 odds of survival. From his first moment on screen I was struck by how much Gordon-Levitt was embodying a character that was a significant departure from the other roles I have seen him in. His face has a blank, smart, unassuming, pale-faced innocence here. He is a soft spoken, self-involved, quietly brooding, generally unassertive character who enters every scene with a look of curiosity and passive expectation of a stimulus which will evoke an emotion. He is always waiting on others to prod him into some kind of response. When he attains his moments of cathartic outburst they are childishly intense cries from a pained, cruel, immature heart lashing out in full victimhood. It is a rather raw and bitter, unsweetened, picture of one young man’s smoldering internal struggle to come to terms with mortal threat.
Despite its generally bleak and bottled up protagonist, the film manages to be deftly funny throughout. The tonal alternations between comedy and drama are often natural. Oftentimes however Seth Rogen’s abrasive, domineering, remarkably immature best friend character attacks scenes with all the gracefulness of a sledgehammer. I generally like Rogen but he was jarringly overbearing and obnoxious throughout the film. This sort of works because most of the characters are pretty awful, but I am only halfway convinced the filmmakers wanted us to find these people so hard to emotionally connect to and like. Every one is abrasive in his or her own way, including the sympathetic older cancer patients (Matt Frewer and the ever-watchable Philip Baker Hall) who befriend our young hero.
Where the film becomes almost unwatchable is when its female characters are on screen living out the fantasies of misogynists. Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Kendrick are gorgeous and give fine performances but their characters are so pathetically drawn as to be wince inducing. From the outset we are set up to get it that Howard is too selfish to cope with Gordon-Levitt’s illness as much as she feels obliged to and desires to. Howard puts a lot of nuance into her brittle, jerky, always off-the-mark character but the script rakes her character through the mud rather cruelly. Or, more precisely, the guys, upon catching her cheating on Gordon-Levitt, berate her viciously. And when she comes back looking for sympathy, we are “treated” to a sort of vindictiveness porn, as a pitiless Gordon-Levitt refuses her desperate attempts to get him to take herback by cursing her out and then by gleefully joining Rogen in creatively destroying a painting she made for him.
The undercurrent to the film of Rogen jealously wanting Gordon-Levitt back from the vile wench who has captured his heart is the worst kind of “bromance” (read: schlubby homoeroticism)—the kind rooted in hatred of the female and rivalry for other men’s attention against women’s intrusions.
On the other side of the spectrum, Anna Kendrick’s 24 year old graduate student therapist for Gordon-Levitt is cloyingly servile. She is a ball of non-threatening insecurities. She eagerly falls all over herself in scene after desperate scene trying to make an aloof and resistant Gordon-Levitt happy. Oh, what lengths she will do to help him if only she can figure out how. She’s so naive and clumsy and ignorant, seemingly working off a two hour lecture’s worth of training in dealing with patients. She has no strengths or life outside of her single-minded devotion to her self-absorbed, virtueless patient who simply withholds from her until she is weak-kneed and in heat in love with him, and her ex-boyfriend who she pathetically stalks on Facebook. Gordon-Levitt finally warms up to her, but only does so when it’s a matter of taking more control of her than she ever shows of him (rudely fixating on the junk in her car and taking it upon himself to clean it for her) and then pushing her to violate her professional ethics and get involved with him, which she is dying to do.
And finally in the end, of course, she totally does as soon he’s all cured of that cancer and no longer needs any therapy and now she can be the super-girlfriend who rescues him and shows him that not all girlfriends have to be bad.
Combining Howard’s frigid, fickle, ungrateful, insufficiently nurturing bitch in need of a good humiliation and Kendrick’s magic pixie dream girl of unconditional cloying support, we are left with an alternatingly grim and pathetic take on women when all is said on done. As an aside Angelica Huston’s mother character is, again, well-played, but her bossy pure love and concern for her son is met with near-complete indifference and mild annoyance from Gordon-Levitt. Here and there he is called out on his maltreatment of her but nothing changes either in that relationship or in his approach to the other women who preoccupy him in the rare moments he is not just blankly staring into the void and having it stare back at him.