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Entries in 50/50 (2)

Friday
Sep272013

Don Jon

There are certain actors that, as a general rule, don’t make bad movies. You can probably find an exception here and there, but for the most part, these actors choose daring roles in audacious movies that are in a capable director’s hands. They know exactly what they’re doing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors. From 2005’s underseen “Brick” to the emotional “50/50” to one of the most honest explorations of love ever put to screen in “(500) Days of Summer,” he has proven himself as one of today’s most versatile, and underrated, actors. His directorial debut, “Don Jon,” lacks the visual flair or steady pacing a more experienced director can obtain, but the quality is still there. From laughs to tears to some surprising and genuine meaning, “Don Jon” is a delight.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ladies man. He’s so successful with picking up women on a week to week basis that his friends actually call him “The Don.” He has no problem showing up at a club, meeting a girl, seducing her and taking her home for some late night fun. The problem is he considers sex secondary to his one true passion: porn. Put simply, he’s a junkie, someone who watches porn dozens of times a week, only to confess to his priest and be absolved of his sins. However, he soon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a knock-out he considers to be a perfect 10 in regards to looks. For the first time ever, he begins dating her, breaking his streak of hooking up with a new girl every week, but his love of porn and her strong hatred of it is going to strain their relationship.

“Don Jon” is a strange breed. It has central characters that aren’t good people, or even interesting ones. Aside from the title character, most are throwaway, including Jon’s two friends and his sister who stares into her phone the entire movie until speaking some words of wisdom near the end, and many of them do and say things that make you wonder why we should care at all about them. Even Jon has anger issues, particularly while driving, which is shown through random segues from scene to scene. While one scene culminates into him punching through the side window of a motorist’s car, the compilation of these scenes culminate to nothing. There’s no reason for this other than to create ill will towards a character we’re supposed to enjoy watching.

Yet the movie has a soul, even while some of the characters arguably don’t. Although most Hollywood movies portray sex and sexuality in ways that glamorize it to unrealistic heights, “Don Jon” looks at sex from a more spiritual view, despite the pornography focused central story. Jon is obsessed with porn and considers it the pinnacle of sexuality, something that can’t be topped by someone with whom he’s physically engaging. When Barbara comes along, he says he’s in love, but as he expresses his love to her, he says she’s “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever laid his eyes on. His love is purely for her aesthetic qualities and what she could potentially offer him in bed. He fails to realize the shallow and selfish person underneath those looks.

When they finally hop in the sack, she, unsurprisingly, fails to match the feelings watching pornography gives him. This is because he’s not truly forming a connection. Yet as the film goes on, he grows. From sources I won’t spoil here, Jon learns the true value of sex. He learns that sex can be something more than getting off, but rather something special between two people. It’s an interesting turn of events and a great exploration of what sex can offer aside from the obvious pleasures, even if the previous focus on porn addiction is simpleminded at best.

“Don Jon” isn’t a long film—a mere 90 minutes, including opening and closing credits—which may be why its themes don’t resonate as much as they should, but in a cinematic world that seems to value sex over love, we shouldn’t shun a movie that sees deeper meaning in the former, even while it mostly ignores the latter.

Don Jon receives 4/5

Friday
Sep302011

50/50

Cancer is a touchy subject. Make a joke about cancer, or someone with it, and people give you a look like you just punched an elderly woman in the face. To laugh about such a terrible disease seems inappropriate, so kudos to 50/50, the new (only?) cancer comedy, that reaches for the forbidden fruit and takes a big bite out of it. This is a movie with guts that is unafraid to use cancer as a comedic tool, but what many will find surprising is how delicately it’s handled. 50/50 doesn’t make light of cancer; that would be offensive. It treats it as it is and by the end, you’ll realize the joking was the only way these characters could have dealt with it. It’s a smart turnaround that, upon reflection, changes your perception of the movie. The more you think about it, the better it seems.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works at a Seattle public radio station. He’s a normal guy, just like anyone else. He has a girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen) and a clingy mother (Anjelica Huston). His life is fine, if uneventful, but it’s shaken up a bit when he finds out he has a very rare type of cancer. His chances of survival are 50%, which is better than most cancer sufferers get, so to fight it, he undergoes chemotherapy and attends therapy with the young Katie (Anna Kendrick), a doctor in training who, if you include Adam, has had a grand total of three patients.

Isolate that plot synopsis and 50/50 would appear to be a serious drama, but more often than not, it lets loose its silliness, including a great scene where Adam awkwardly tries to pick girls up at a bar by telling them he has cancer. Another example is when Kyle exploits Adam’s sickness to bag a date with a pretty girl at a bookstore. These things may seem wrong (especially the latter), but aside from a joke about the late Patrick Swayze, the film never crosses the line. It makes it okay to laugh about cancer, even if doing so feels kind of weird. It takes a deadly, incurable disease and knocks it down to size, treating it like something that deserves to be mocked.

In the midst of all the joking, it sometimes feels like 50/50 is forgetting to acknowledge the enormity of such a disease. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as capable of an actor as he is, doesn’t seem to be putting forth the emotion. It’s hard to tell whether his character is struggling with his diagnosis or has made peace with it. He seems more emotionally distraught when he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him than he does with the fact that he only has a 50% chance of living. It isn’t until the third act that the feeling finally comes through, but in retrospect, it seems appropriate. Adam is undeniably scared at the news, but is optimistic at first. He passes the news along to his family and friends and he dishes out more consolation than he receives. The gravity of the situation hasn’t yet sunk in. But as time goes on, his health starts to fail, he stops responding to the treatment and one of his chemotherapy buddies, who appeared to be healthy and happy, suddenly dies. Finally, with the awareness that he’s fast approaching death, he starts to break down and lose hope. To go any further would ruin it, but now that I’ve had the time to think about the film, I can’t see these events playing out any other way.

50/50 has a big heart and even though it takes the time to poke fun at cancer, it also acknowledges how scary it is, making it the most faithful depiction of the disease I can recall seeing in the movies. It follows an emotional path that seems authentic, though it’s one that hopefully none of us will ever have to test. 50/50 is one of those rare movies that can make you laugh with a tear in your eye and if you don’t see it, you’ll be missing out.

50/50 receives 4.5/5