What is a strong film with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

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Answered by: Jeremy, An Expert in the Movie Reviews Category
50/50 (2011) Who knew a movie about "the big C" could be funny? Not the disease itself, but one young man's response to cancer and the acceptance of his own mortality.

Half-tragedy and half-comedy, "50/50" avoids the sudsy traps of a disease-of-the-week teleplay and treads a tricky tightrope, making it some kind of wonderful. Screenwriter Will Reiser penned the script, based on his own rare diagnosis when he was in his early 20s and gained support from his friend Seth Rogen (yes, that same one). The film doesn't have to inundate us with "inspired by a true story" as a subtitle or in the marketing, even though it is an autobiographical piece. Adam (actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a timid 27-year-old sound editor for Seattle Public Radio, is the least likely candidate to have health problems. He exercises, doesn't drink or smoke, and has no driver's license since a car accident is in the top leading causes of death. Life throws him a curveball when a check-up with the doctor for his recent back problems turns into an astonishing diagnosis: Adam has a malignant tumor on his spine.

As the doc drones on with medical jargon into a tape recorder and little eye contact, the news is still sinking into Adam. In his most painful hour of greatest need, his live-in artist girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), clearly can't handle it and eventually shows her true colors. When he sits down his smothering, chronically worried mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), to tell her the news, Adam starts with "Have you ever seen 'Terms of Endearment'?" and Diane immediately makes it about her. When Adam tells his work and outside-of-work buddy, Kyle (Seth Rogen), the response is, "If you were a casino game, you would have the best odds." Kyle takes it as a ploy to get he and his buddy laid, but even sex has lost its spark. Shocked but confused on how to feel, Adam checks in with Katie (Anna Kendrick), a 24-year-old therapist-in-training whose warmth and wisdom makes up for her inexperience. Everyone reacts differently, but no one knows how Adam truly feels. Time and again, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves he's extraordinary in independent and mainstream fare. Here, in what feels like a bit of both worlds, he is tender, vulnerable, and completely relatable. Shaving his head for real and in one take, the actor never has a melodramatic break-down scene, but his vulnerability is gut-wrenchingly real. There is a heartbreaking scene, however, where Adam gets behind the wheel of a car and screams out of frustration.

Rogen, slimming down after his lovable teddy-bear phase, still uses his bluntly crass wit, but shows a concern and generosity for his friend behind the felatio jokes. Adam and Kyle's friendship is a true bromance. Proving her ace turn in "Up in the Air" was no fluke, Anna Kendrick is just as wonderful again, bringing her comic briskness and a sense of terrified innocence/inexperience to Katherine. Huston affectingly turns the overprotective mom role of Diane into a nuanced woman coping with a lot (an Alzeimer's-stricken husband and a son with cancer).

In one therapy session with Adam, Kendrick's Katherine makes an astute assumption without even meeting Diane: Adam's mom takes on a husband who can't talk to her and a son who won't talk to her. In a tricky spot, Howard could have been boxed-in as a one-dimensional shrew, but she makes her emotions and actions believable and morally complex. When Adam gives her freedom to just leave him, figuring his condition would be too much for her to handle, Rachael makes it worse by trying hard to care; she even feels uncomfortable entering the hospital for his chemotherapy.

Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer are also darkly amusing and down-to-earth as two older cancer patients who show him the perks to their mutual disease with medicinal marijuana. "50/50" beats the odds, tackling such a tough subject as cancer and never ringing false for a beat. Navigating a pitch-perfect mixture of tones and character shadings, director Jonathan Levine (whose eclectic credits include 2008's coming-of-ager "The Wackness" and 2006's retro-horror film "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane") finds the truth, pathos, and humor in the situation. It's sensitive without being maudlin and funny without overpowering the emotion.

Levine and the cast make the mood swings feel effortlessly smooth, never forced. The characters feel real because, like in most grievous situations, no one knows what to say or how they should act. Since Reiser wrote the fictionalized but personal script, we know there's no 50/50 chance for the ending to conclude at a funeral, but it's a satisfyingly sweet one. Humorously prickly, profoundly moving, and emotionally true, "50/50" is quite the balanced package.

Grade: A

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