It would be hard to pick my favourite genre of movie, but I do know what the most realistic type of movie is. Clearly I don’t detect a lot of realism in Killer Elite or Drive, as those are movies that rely heavily on people doing improbable or borderline impossible things, like beating the shit out of a dude while being attached to a chair or paying attention to the whole second half of a Raptors/Clippers game. The most realistic type of movie is generally a comedy, but not one in the more ludicrous vein of something like Anchorman. Movies like Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Greg Mottola’s Adventureland have resonated as strongly as they have not just because they’re funny, but because audiences can also occasionally sense an element of realism in how the conflicts are presented. And that’s why these movies should probably be taken a bit more seriously than they are.
I liked 50/50. A lot. Directed by Jonathan Levine*, the movie deals with screenwriter (and friend of Seth Rogen) Will Reiser’s fight with cancer, something that literally every review of this movie is contractually obligated to mention before paragraph three. In the film, Reiser is played adequately by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen is played hilariously by, well, Seth Rogen. Anjelica Huston plays Gordon-Levitt’s mom, Anna Kendrick is his therapist, Bryce Dallas Howard is his girlfriend, and Philip Baker Hall is just plain awesome.
*Whose previous film was The Wackness, a movie that you might remember because during the filming process throughout the summer of 2007 gossip sites were temporarily fixated on the fact that Mary-Kate Olsen makes out with Ben Kingsley in this movie.
50/50 has its problems, the biggest of which is that it is simply too short. At one point, a character disappears without explanation, and Howard never gets anything more to do than be a piece of bitchy furniture with mesmerizing eyes. However, the good far outweighs the bad.
There are myriad reasons to like this movie, the first being that it’s absolutely fucking hilarious. Seth Rogen hasn’t been this funny since at least 2007, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an effective straight man. But the real reason to like this movie is for precisely that: it feels real. When things in this movie get heavy, you are never that far from a tension-breaking joke, not unlike the way the average modern twentysomething would react to being told there’s a 50% chance he’s going to die. And it is because the movie succeeds when it does have to get heavy that it succeeds so wholeheartedly; despite its flaws, you care about the people who you’re supposed to care about, and the laughs hit you harder because you actually end up feeling some kind of emotion toward (at least) the two lead characters.
Too often in movies, we get serious issues presented to us in a tone that is entirely too serious. Life-threatening illnesses are clearly serious, and should be taken as such, but to act like a person who likes to laugh would stop doing so entirely upon finding out about said illness is simply unrealistic. The reason 50/50 succeeds isn’t because it’s funny, or because its more dramatic moments are handled well; 50/50 does both of those things, but it succeeds because it never strays too far away from a world that feels real to its viewers. If you don’t identify with the characters of any given movie, you never care. And I would never identify with somebody who isn’t still willing to laugh while battling a life-threatening illness. Again, this is a flawed movie (I wish the ultra-obvious volcano metaphor had been cut), but it still works because while it occasionally stops being funny to be a truly serious film, it never stops feeling real. And that’s the only way a movie like 50/50 will ever get its target audience to feel any sort of emotion at all.
Alex writes about film and pop culture over at The MacGuffin Men. You can subscribe to his weekly podcast with James here, follow them on Twitter, or continue to read about his trips to the cinema at Songs & Cigarettes.