50/50

The worst result of a bad mattress I’ve ever seen

Real-life inspiration aside, the latest of several movies entitled 50/50 manages to deliver not only laughs, but competent drama.  This may seem like a herculean task in a film featuring Seth Rogen, but lest we forget, Donnie Darko also had him in it.

Rogen’s presence is a welcome one, being the comic relief of the film as well as the fictional counterpart to his real-life role as Will Reiser’s close friend.  The cast is captained by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who provides the “dram” half of the dramedy.  He plays Adam Lerner, a radio host who, despite his almost obsessively healthy lifestyle, is diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer.  His girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), prematurely agrees to take care of him, having no idea what she’s in for, and things go quite badly for the relationship when she experiences even the first level of Adam’s sickness.  Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston) has almost no one left, seeing as her husband (Serge Houde) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Rounding out the cast is the adorable Anna Kendrick, who plays Katherine, Adam’s young therapist.

Katherine is the film’s breath of fresh air, however obvious it may be that she and Adam are headed for an unethical romantic relationship the first time she gives him a ride home.  She provides what I suspect is one of the film’s most meaningful lines – “I’m not good at getting rid of stuff” – when Adam comments on her disaster of a car.  Kyle (Rogen) attempts to support Adam while also using his cancer to meet women, which leads to some funny moments, and Adam’s mother smothers him with care, despite his refusal to call her back most of the time.  These tough situations, along with Adam’s worsening condition, lead to some great conflicts and build to some heart-wrenching moments.  Interestingly, Adam’s character isn’t incredibly likable when the story begins; he seems to loosen up and spread his wings after his diagnosis.  Speaking of which, the doctor who gives Adam the news does so in such a bored, routine manner that he might be a janitor mopping the floor.  I was stunned to see Adam return to him later.  As Roger Ebert said in his review, “would it kill the son of a bitch to make [the odds] 60/40?”

The film relies on the concept itself – a young person becoming sick and dying – in order to deliver its primary drama.  If you know anyone who has had cancer, especially through the later stages, you know it’s far worse than portrayed here (although you may chalk it up to the fact that this is a feel-good film and, if you want to go this route, that Adam’s cancer was operable).  In addition, the inclusion of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father feels thrown in, as it doesn’t seem to affect Adam very much (I think he only says two lines to his father in the whole film), and might better serve a film centering around Diane, as he is largely her responsibility.

One of the best moments of the film is the convergence of all the people who orbit Adam throughout the film (other than Rachel, who is ousted in an emotionally-confused and rather mean-spirited scene on Adam’s porch).

I am surprised Adam lasts as long as he does before throwing a screaming fit.  Scenes like this provide some real tear-inducing moments, which is commendable for a film pitched as a feel-good comedy.  The story ends in the perfect moment, an opportunity most films miss, with Katherine posing a question to Adam, a question all film heroes must face when their adventures end.  I think Adam might be one character who knows how to answer.

50/50 (2011); written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen and Anjelica Huston.

The Green Hornet

It’s better than herpes

The original Green Hornet TV series was notable because unlike the campy Batman show, it was played straight.  It was the story of two silly urban heroes in masks, but this was serious business to them.

The Rogen/Goldberg version isn’t quite as B&W as far as its narrative lens.  The film opens with Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) being scolded by his totalitarian father (Tom Wilkinson) in one of those “every child has a hundred moments like this, but for this character it was so profound that it will stick with him for the rest of his life and, more importantly, catalyze the movement of this entire film” scenes.  Ten years later, Reid decides, upon his father’s death, that he will abandon his frivolous lifestyle and team up with his father’s former mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou, in the role that popularized Bruce Lee with American audiences), and together they will fight crime by pretending to be “bad guys.”  The duo make this decision after desecrating a statue of Reid’s deceased dad.  This setup switches the mood of the film about three times: the beginning is funny (ish) and lighthearted, with Rogen popping one-liners and goofing off.  Then Wilkinson abruptly dies and we hear Johnny Cash’s “I Hung My Head,” one of the saddest songs ever performed, as a hundred somber folks attend the funeral.  Immediately after this, Rogen and Chou destroy the statue, resting its head (the head of Reid’s father) on the couch next to them as they drink beer and babble.  In any other film, this could be a type of dark humor, but here, it’s mean-spirited and confusing.

The film picks up, however.  Insecure villain Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) assumes control of all crime in Los Angeles by killing James Franco and walking slowly away from the explosion without flinching.  As the Green Hornet and Kato gain infamy in the city, Chudnofsky becomes jealous, and we have an urban war on our hands.  Cameron Diaz also shows up as Lenore Case, Reid’s new secretary, who wisely avoids giving her affections to either of the buffoonish leads.

Refreshingly, the film’s twists are inventive and sometimes genuinely surprising (either that or I wasn’t able to pay close enough attention due to the fact that a pair of cumbersome 3D glasses were stuck to my face).  The comic-book-style revelation scenes near the end are very well put-together, and the pair of Rogen and Chou are genuinely likable (a necessity, since the lion’s share of the film’s dialogue belongs to them).  The role of Chudnofsky is a “cool-down” role for Waltz, who plays a stereotypical archvillain and appears to be having some genuine fun with it.  It’s his first role since his wonderful performance in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he’ll follow it with performances in the potentially-great Water For Elephants and the umpteenth remake of The Three Musketeers.  Diaz appears only to keep the film from being a “brodeo” (to use the parlance of our times).  It is due noting, however, that the film has a certain homo-eroticism to it, usually initiated by Reid.  He and Kato form a best-buds relationship, but some of the humor has further layers.  Reid asks Kato to “take [his] hand and come on this adventure,” and sheepishly claims to a roomful of journalists that he and Kato are “just platonic” after blurting out “Kato is my man.”  They bicker like a couple, have the classic Movie Break-Up and Reunion, and playfully slap each other on the privates once or twice.  Plus, neither of them end up with a woman in the end.

As a whole, the film delivers what it promises.  You’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting anything but silly action, campy humor, and death treated like a casual routine.  I wonder, though, with Chou’s prominent billing, large blocks of dialogue spoken with a genuine accent, martial-arts moves that sometimes resemble Wing Chun (including an explosive-yet-incorrectly-delivered “No Inch Punch”), and a clever Bruce Lee reference hidden in Kato’s sketchbook… did the Chinese once again rename it The Kato Show?

The Green Hornet (2011); written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; directed by Michel Gondry; starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz.