A well-acted, beautifully written small picture. It’s a dramatic comedy about a young man who has a 50/50 chance of beating cancer—based on the real-life journey of screenwriter Will Reiser. It’s on the scale of a Woody Allen movie, and doesn’t have an epic shot, computer creature, or swelling chord of music in it. Not that there is anything wrong with that—but it’s a nice break to go through an entire film without any of that.
Once it’s over, you realize that the idea could be considered cliché—young man is dead in every emotional and relational way, gets sick with a possibly terminal illness, and gradually comes to life through the experience. But the outcome of the disease isn’t obvious from the start, and the movement toward life is so real, so measured, that we are in suspense until near the end, and are engaged throughout. The requisite moments are there—the comeuppance scene of the “villain,” the primal scream of rage against the disease and all it’s taken and might take from the central character, the reconnecting moments between the lead and important secondary characters. But they are done in understated or unexpected ways, and seem to flow out of the reality of the circumstances and the characters themselves.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam) is one of my favorite young actors, and at first I was underwhelmed by his performance. That is, until it became clear what an emotionally constricted people-pleaser his character was. Then, over time, the performance blossomed with a warmth and freedom of expression that was still gentle but no longer beaten down. It’s a lovely character arc.
Dallas Bryce Howard is an unusual screen presence, and I struggle to find the right adjective to describe her as an actress. She has lately been excelling in playing multi-layered women we don’t like without turning them into completely hateful people (see The Help). She’s growing in skill as an actress, but she never seems to fit entirely into any film in which she’s cast. There is an individuality that stands out (or for the more critical among us, sticks out) in her films. Yet I admire her bravery and her unwillingness to play a character generically. Here she plays Rachael, Adam’s girlfriend, and isn’t afraid to show us the conflicted weaknesses behind her actions.
Anna Kendrick as the therapist can pretty much do no wrong on screen. Once I saw her performance in Up in the Air, I was sold. She owns the screen every moment she’s in a scene.
The heart of the story, though, involves Adam’s relationship with his best friend Kyle, played in fairly typical crude puppy-dog fashion by Seth Rogan (Reiser’s real-life friend who helped walk him though his cancer experience). Kyle is rude, crude and lewd, and the reason why kids shouldn’t see the film. His character helps maintain the realism of the film by his sex-obsessed rants, references and suggestions, which are typical of certain types of young men. But the incessant crudity almost derails the film from making its strongest points—the value of true friendship. It’s not a spoiler to say that Kyle is a true, decent and loyal friend, and that in spite of his immaturity and adolescent perspectives, his actions display the heart and soul of a genuine friend when one is needed. It’s a point that’s almost drowned in profanity and coarse sexual talk. But ultimately, Kyle and his friendship with Adam are at the heart of the film. And—no spoiler alert here—Kyle gets to be the center of the most emotionally satisfying scene in the film, and brings us willingly and happily right along with him. You’ll just have to see the film to know what I mean.