Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To Die For: 50/50 & The Walking Dead (Season Two)

Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50.

The French existentialist philosopher and novelist Albert Camus once wrote that the real injustice of life is our recognition that everyone we know and love one day will die. It's what, he said, makes our life truly absurd. But you'd never know this from most of the movies made on the subject. The idea of death its very final reality might be the subject of many stories, yet rarely is its injustice (or absurdity) ever fully acknowledged. When Cary Grant and Irene Dunne lose their adopted child in George Stevens' popular 1941 melodrama Penny Serenade, for example, our sympathies don't concentrate on the dead infant but on the grieving parents instead. We're made to feel for their loss and pain, not the cruel and random taking of a child. It's as if the idea of death a subject that gnawed hungrily at Camus in books like The Plague was too terrifying to confront so movies concentrated instead on the moral struggles of the living.

Terms of Endearment
In pictures like Penny Serenade, the drama isn't worked out so that we come to terms with death, but instead with our trying to avoid it. Melodramas in particular always repress the notion of death, recognizing that our greatest fear of death, besides losing loved ones, is in our own terror of having not lived fully enough, of having perhaps pissed away valuable time that we can't get back. So this is why, especially when you add a recognizable disease like cancer to the mix, the stories resolve with the living having finally learned life's important lessons and then becoming better people. When you watch tear-jerkers like Love Story (1970), Brian's Song (1971), and especially, Terms of Endearment (1983), the survivors settle all rifts, resolve painful grievances, and improve their behaviour. These movies maybe even give us the impression that we can live forever, if we'd just improve our character. They make us feel edified, thanks to those who've died on our behalf, so that our own mortality gets comfortably buried with the bodies being grieved over. However in the recent dramatic comedy, 50/50, not only does death get stared directly in its face, but the picture also dares to laugh at it. Like Camus, 50/50 sees the absurdity in the subject. And it does so without cheapening or avoiding death's victories and temporary losses.

A young NPR documentary producer, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), finds out from his doctor after getting tests for ongoing back pain that he has a rare type of spinal cancer. When he's told he needs to begin chemotherapy and has about a 50/50 chance of survival, he feels cheated. As someone who jogs and doesn't smoke, he thinks those activities had provided him a buy from having to deal with the Grim Reaper. But quickly Adam's condition becomes not only his own personal crucible, but also one to his overbearing, but loving mother (Anjelica Huston), his out-of-her-depth artist girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his stoner co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen). His doctor also recommends he see a hospital psychologist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), but she turns out to be an inexperienced student working on her doctorate. Death, to her, is to be warded off with New Age musical trills and positive thoughts and energy channeling. Everywhere Adam turns, death is being ducked except by a couple of patients he shares chemo treatment and marijuana with the cranky Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and the whimsical Mitch (Matt Fewer). 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the film's single most imaginative scene

The film, originally titled Live With It, is based loosely on screenwriter Will Reiser's own experiences dealing with cancer and it has a comic frankness about the subject that is refreshing, even remarkably touching. In the picture's single most imaginative scene, Adam shares some marijuana-laced macaroons with Alan and Mitch at his first chemo session with them. Having never done weed before, he's totally ignorant of its effects. As he strolls out of the hospital, to the accompaniment of the Bee Gees ballad "To Love Somebody," Adam walks blissfully through the halls with scenes of grief-struck parents, sick patients wobbling past, even dead babies in incubators, while laughing, not with insensitivity, but with the comic awareness of death's darkness surrounding him with its unavoidable grasp. Director Jonathan Levine keeps everything in perspective, subtly letting you in on the insoluble fact that the 50/50 odds are merely temporary ones. Surprisingly, the film's humour both leavens the darkness and heightens it. 50/50 illuminates the kind of humour that can act as a defense against pain as well as demonstrate the kind that addresses it.

Anna Kendrick and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
The performers are largely up to the task. Once again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows what a remarkably versatile actor he is. Levitt showed some remarkable shadings of melancholy as the brain-damaged bank janitor in the otherwise negligible The Lookout (2007). He was equally brilliant and boldly shocking as the hopped-up sociopath eagerly seeking the partnership of Mickey Rourke's hit man in the little seen, but terrifically effective, Elmore Leonard adaptation, Killshot (2008). In 50/50, Gordon-Levitt plays Adam as a guy who calmly has things under control on the surface but is seething underneath. He's grown used to accommodating everyone else, including a girlfriend who only has her own interest at heart and a best friend who's both crudely funny and annoying. Gordon-Levitt brings you to a full awareness of the frustrations of a guy who spends his life observing, but never knowing how to act.

Unfortunately, he has to play opposite Seth Rogen. Rogen is becoming a predictable one-note wrecking crew in every movie he appears in. (In real life, Rogen is Reiser's best friend and writing partner.) Rogen's talent, as he demonstrated in Knocked Up and The Green Hornet, is to be the annoying slob who turns out to have a heart of gold. But Rogen's familiar shtick is so self-serving (and catering to the slobs-in-training in the audience) that he's always in danger of jettisoning the picture. But fortunately, Levine keeps him mostly anchored in character. There's not much Levine can do about Bryce Dallas Howard's part as the girlfriend who can't hack what Adam is going through. It's a poorly conceived role. Levine and Reiser don't give her a human scale so that we can see that maybe she takes refuge in her own life to avoid the possible fate of losing Adam. Besides making her too obviously narcissistic, they even have her sleeping around on Adam. (You wince at the scene where Rogen's Kyle gets to tell her off.)

Fortunately, Anjelica Huston gives her part, as the worrying mother, some consideration that completely humanizes her failings. Anna Kendrick's therapist still has those self-conscious ticks that marred her work in Up in the Air, but she's softer here and she has a lovely moment towards the end when Adam phones her in a moment of painful vulnerability. Overall, I wish there were more moments with Philip Baker Hall and Matt Fewer who share some poignant moments talking with Adam and Kyle, while sharing some spliffs, about what they loved about the early days of radio. Their chats have the gravity of what savoring life's rich moments gives you.

50/50 is a nimble balancing act that is both engaging and entertaining. It is also remarkably free of cant and heart-tugging. The film earns its tears by recognizing how fragile life truly is. There's a huge difference between sentimentality, which cheapens emotions, and romanticism (which heightens them). In that regard, 50/50 beats the odds.

Sunday night, AMC's apocalyptic horror series The Walking Dead went into a brief hiatus during its second season (where it picks up again in February) with a number of viewers already feeling disappointed with the inertia shown so far. While Mark Clamen wrote perceptively about the show's appeal last season, it was generally acknowledged that its action-packed terror, with its obvious echoes of post-9/11 America, kept the plot racing along (even as it diverted from the much darker corners of the original graphic novel). This year, however, the survivors of this zombie apocalypse outside Atlanta, Georgia, have settled (as they did in the comic) at a rural farm. While there, they've been endlessly searching for a little girl from their group who became lost running from the 'walkers' (the term used here for zombie). They also had to wait out the healing of a young boy accidentally shot by one of the homesteaders, as well as pregnancies, discussing the use of guns, recalling Old Testament judgments, etc. All of this could make for fine drama, but for the fact that this group of actors – and the measured doggerel coming out of their mouths – pretends a depth that just isn't there.

Jon Bernthal's Shane
In the first season, The Walking Dead stayed true to its pulp origins where metaphors of larger themes were packed in B-movie bits of action. The characters achieved personality essentially by reacting to the collapse around them. Andrew Lincoln's sheriff made his presence felt when we saw what there was to die for: the wife and kid he fought the walking dead to get to. The clan of survivors also each revealed their personalities as they fought to find some means to survive – especially Jon Bernthal's deputy Shane who had coveted his partner's wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), assuming his buddy had died in the carnage. The larger dramatic issues grew out of the little bits of business rather than through stated bigger themes. But that's all we have this year. The existential dread is being welded onto this slim and trim action story and (like with most action pictures) it can't hold the weight.

While there are still compelling moments scattered throughout the second season, The Walking Dead is developing its own somnambulism much like the lagging corpses stalking them. (Sometimes the corpses seem to be moving faster than the living.) Worse, it is revealing the deficiencies of the actors who carried the first season. The conflicting instincts of Shane, which shockingly revealed itself this season in a bold horrific gesture that didn't come from the book, just can't be fully articulated by Bernthal's mannered performance. (Until the concluding episode, he was in danger into turning into Lenny from Of Mice and Men.) Andrew Lincoln has suddenly become blandly righteous and conscientiousness while Sarah Wayne Callies' Lori endlessly wrings her hands and frets. By trying to deepen the tragedy of the homeless survivors, who are trying to find some sense of what home now means, all the creators have done is drowned the show in angst.

Andrew Lincoln & Scott Wilson
The signs of life have largely come from Scott Wilson's Biblical patriarch who runs the farm. Wilson has always suggested a richly authentically American character – both stoic and sometimes as a killer (the blank, scared face he gave us as Robert Blake's partner in In Cold Blood) – one who seems to contain the many contradictions of the country itself. His measured tones make more sense than the moody insolence everyone else conjures up. The playfully seductive timbre of Lauren Holden's voice as Maggie, while she flirts with Glenn (Steven Yuen), also has an appealing buoyancy even when she pouts. But everyone else is dead earnest.

If the regular episodes have been dragging their feet, until Sunday night's cathartic conclusion, AMC has curiously put 'webisodes' on their Internet site. These contain roughly fifteen minutes of scenes that give us a back-story to some of the characters we've met only briefly – but memorably – during the broadcast. For instance, the zombie crawler near the bicycle with half a body (she could hardly be called a 'walker') from the very first pilot episode is given a 'webisode' where we see how she became that way. Here's a clue: it ain't pretty. But, in a sense, the 'webisode' shows you by contrast what is missing from this season so far. By showing us living people in constant motion, as they find various means to ward off the stalking predators, we see how these circumstances test their ingenuity and valour. We come to see why their life matters to them. (The walking dead, by comparison, are simple. They just want to feed.) But don't get me wrong. It's not that I want to see endless mayhem and blood, but given the limitations of the action/horror genre, the producers can't pretend to be William Faulkner either. The Walking Dead only comes to life when the living can dramatically demonstrate why they chose not to be dead – walking or not.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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