Review: Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in affecting, understated ’50/50′

Jonathan Levine’s been working in a minor key so far as a filmmaker. 

His first film is the still unreleased “All The Boys Love Mandy Lane,” a determined twist on slasher formula and iconography, and he followed that up with the coming-of-age story “The Wackness,” and in both cases, I’ve got a solid case of like.  I think he’s interesting, and it feels to me like he’s warming up.  That’s not an insult, either.  I think Rian Johnson is still warming up.  I like “Brick,” and I really like “The Brothers Bloom,” but those aren’t the movies he’ll be known for.  Those are still ahead.  He’s a guy who is going to keep getting better.  You can see it in the way he grows from first to second film, and in the ambition of what he’s doing.  Levine is that kind of filmmaker.  I look at his movies, and I can see that he’s smart, that he thinks about what he’s shooting, that there’s a real heart in there.  Those movies are genuinely told, sincerely meant, and even if I don’t love them, I like what they represent, a filmmaker who’s working towards something.

I think “50/50” is a great next step for Levine, but this isn’t his film as much as it’s a great execution of a passion project for writer Will Reiser and producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.  Levine came in late on this one, and it looks to me like this is the result of cashing in some clout and making something for a price and putting together a package that made monetary sense.  Rogen plays an important role creatively off-camera, but him playing the main supporting role is also one of the reasons this got made. The casting of Bryce Dallas Howard brings another chunk of money.  Same with Anna Kendrick.  Same with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  This package has a certain amount of box-office mathematic worth, and so you can make something personal.  When people cash in their clout in moments like this, you learn a lot about them, and I think it’s hard to fault Goldberg, Rogen, and Reiser for the ambition of this one.  Taking Reiser’s personal struggle with cancer and turning it into a film that illustrates that struggle is turning a terrifying and emotional experience into a positive, and hopefully also showing others a different face of this sort of material.  We’ve seen a lot of movies in the past about a character struggling with a life-threatening illness, nursed for maximum emotion, but this is a different voice in the mix, a different portrayal, and I think it navigates some tricky tonal shifts in ways that are impressive and at times quite moving.

First, and absolutely foremost, is there any doubt at this point that one of the heaviest hitters in his age range is Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  When he was on “Third Rock From The Sun,” I used to marvel at the way he stood toe-to-toe with Lithgow and the crack timing he had in place from day one.  He’s like Michael J. Fox.  He was just gifted with a certain sort of camera ready presence from day one, and what’s happened over time is that he’s really pushed himself to become a technically impressive actor, honing that natural something he has into a deadly weapon at this point.  He gives off a good-natured charm in this film that turns what could be a sort of morbid whining into a sympathetic portrayal.  He has to go through some tricky ups and downs in the film, and Gordon-Levitt nails it all.  He never hits a false note in the movie, and he has very different chemistry with Bryce Dallas Howard as his ex-girlfriend Rachael and Anna Kendrick as his therapist, Katie, new to the job and determined to help him.

Kendrick is warm in a way I don’t think we’ve seen from her on film before, and it’s a nice change.  There’s a definite throughline from “Rocket Science” to “Up In The Air”  for her, and there’s a type of role she’s been given for the most part, but this feels like a major shift.  Her job is to try to make a connection with her patient, and Adam is one of the very first people she’s assigned to help.  There’s a desperation she’s fighting in the film that makes her very vulnerable, and Kendrick offers up a very rich performance.  You get a lot of subtext from what she’s doing in the film, and she makes some very interesting choices.  It’s a nice case of casting against type, and I expect it will expand the sorts of things Kendrick is offered in the future.

Rogen does exactly what you expect, the opposite of the Kendrick role, but that’s because he’s sort of playing himself and Evan and all of Reiser’s real-life friends who went through his cancer with him.  I ilke that the movie isn’t about making saints of anyone, but instead, it’s an attempt to capture the light moments that make it possible to survive the darker moments on the rollercoaster of being seriously sick.  Rogen never overpowers the movie, but he definitely gives what I would call the definition of a supporting performance.  He’s there to lay groundwork for everything Gordon-Levitt’s doing, and he’s the guy who is the sounding board in some of Gordon-Levitt’s greatest stuff.  Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall both show up in small but important roles, and they’re both great, as expected.

I like that the film feels so rough-hewn, sort of intentionally ragged on a technical level, like it’s raw.  Here.  We shot it.  Boom.  It doesn’t feel oversweetened, and it strips away a lot of the artifice that can be a problem in a typical Hollywood treatment of something like this.  Terry Stacey has a interesting track record including films like “American Splendor” and “Adventureland,” and he keeps things loose and makes it all feel stolen.  Michael Giacchino does an impressive job of restraining himself, keeping the score simple and direct.  It would be easy to bury the movie in fake emotion with a score that does it all for you, but it really doesn’t pour it on.  That makes it more affecting, more tender.

It’s not often that I think a “here’s my experience of something horrible but ultimately life-affirming” movie has the potential to really break out commercially, but “50/50” is the sort of film that audiences love to experience together.  It’s powerful, and there’s a real release to sharing this, which is one of the points of making the movie in the first place.  The degree to which the film works is the nice surprise here, and I hope people take a chance on this one.

“50/50” opens in theaters September 30, 2011.