50-50

September 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
Directed by: Jonathon Levine (“The Wackness”)
Written by: Will Reiser (debut)

As soon as 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hears his doctor utter the word “cancer,” his ears begin to ring and his vision becomes blurry. For a few seconds, he becomes paralyzed, trapped under the weight of the revelation. From here, Adam begins his journey through the five stages of grief as he looks for acceptance, deals with treatment, seeks support, and tries to stay positive as his future becomes uncertain.

After Adam is diagnosed with cancer, he begins to deal with a lot of confusing emotions. His main source of support is his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a fun-loving stoner who tries to get Adam to use his cancer to pick up girls. To help him deal with the life-altering news, Adam turns to Katherine McKay, an unseasoned psychiatry doctoral student, to help him cope with the emotional aspects of the disease. To make matters worse for Adam, his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) is invasive and determined to take care him, even as he rejects her motherly instinct.

After an unsuccessful foray in “Hesher,” Gordon-Levitt returns to his comfort zone in a well-acted role that calls for unassuming charm and some heavy dramatic moments. As wisecracking friend Kyle, Rogen’s performance is a little uneven. There’s a sense of trying too hard by being needlessly vulgar that surrounds Rogen’s performance, but he is able to come through with some genuine laughs as well as displaying good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt. The highlight of the cast is Kendrick. Her charm is on full display and her scenes with Gordon-Levitt are among the best of the film. Their chemistry is so strong, sweet, and convincing that she actually elevates his performance during their scenes together.

It goes without saying that making a comedy surrounding such a devastating disease is challenging. But the beauty of humor is that with the right attitude and manipulation, it can be found in even the darkest and most unexpected of places. Taking a subject like cancer and finding tasteful ways to laugh at the situation is the mark of something truly special, and perhaps even inspirational to those dealing with stress and anxiety. And while “50/50” does utilize some laughter at the expense of Adam’s illness, too much of the humor comes from Rogen’s crass and sexual dialogue. It’s almost as if Rogen wandered onto the set straight from an Apatow movie and everyone just went along with it.

The dramatic moments hit hard and resonate, none greater than when Adam finally breaks down and Gordon-Levitt lets out a primal scream that shakes you to your core. But the first half of the movie shoehorns comedy that doesn’t necessarily fit, almost as if the filmmakers felt the need to make the audience laugh to keep them from feeling too many negative emotions. Perhaps the biggest problem is not only that the jokes hit at an inconsistent rate, but it also often disrupts the tone of the film.

While “50/50” occasionally struggles to strike a balance between drama and comedy, the final act is simply stunning.  The events and emotions are so powerful that they will undoubtedly leave many audience members misty-eyed, which is a result of expert handling with heavy scenes. The humor might not connect consistently, but “50/50” is a minor triumph.

When in Rome

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Dax Shepard
Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson (“Ghost Rider”)
Written by: David Diamond (“Old Dogs”) and David Weissman (“Old Dogs”)

Take the screenwriters of one of the unfunniest comedies of 2009 (“Old Dogs”) and team them up with the director of two of the worst superhero movies of the last decade (“Daredevil” and “Ghost Rider”) and there’s no telling what kind of mutant cinematic love-child can be spawned.

Whatever label you’d like to put on the new romantic comedy “When in Rome,” it’s unfortunate that Kristen Bell (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) – an actress that makes looking adorable an art form – has her name attached. It’s the type of pointless rom com that is easy to dismiss if you’ve clawed your way through enough of them.

In this latest entry of chick-flick torture, Bell plays Beth, a Manhattan museum curator who is too busy with her career to search for Mr. Right. Her interest in love is at an all-time low since her last boyfriend dumped her at Applebee’s and announced his engagement to another woman soon after.

While a wedding would be the last place Beth would want to go, especially with her boss Celeste (Anjelica Huston) breathing down her neck about an upcoming art show, Beth travels to Rome to see her little sister get married to an guy she’s only known for two weeks.

In Rome she meets Nick (Josh Duhamel), a sportswriter and charming best man who could have made perfect boyfriend material if Beth wasn’t so skeptical about relationships. Her cynicism (in addition to a little too much wine) drives Beth to take coins from a fountain in the city’s square where people make wishes to fall in love. In turn, the men whose coins Beth snatches from the magical fountain immediately direct their attention to Beth and follow her back to New York to try to win her heart.

Leading the pack of stalkers are actors Dax Shepard as an arrogant male model, Will Arnett as a crazy Italian artist, Jon Heder as a untalented street magician, and Danny DeVito as a friendly sausage capitalist. Other than DeVito’s short stature and the fact that he’s the only character of the bunch not written like a bumbling fool, there’s nothing remotely funny about Beth’s ridiculous suitors.

As the story continues to unravel as predictably as possible and with scarce humor, screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman decide that it might be neat to emphasize their unoriginality by writing in a “Napoleon Dynamite” reference into the script where Heder (the star of the 2004 indie hit) reunites with actor Efren Ramirez, who played Napoleon’s best friend Pedro. Really? The cameo works about as well as the rest of the thoughtless jokes that plague the script.

In the end, “When in Rome” is one uncreative sight gag after another. From Beth and Nick’s date to a restaurant where food is served in the dark to the weird “Wizard of Oz” curveball it throws at the end, director Mark Steven Johnson seems to have told the entire cast to just run with it and have some mindless fun. If only we were so lucky.

Choke

September 10, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kelly MacDonald, Anjelica Huston
Directed by: Clark Gregg (debut)
Written by: Clark Gregg (“What Lies Beneath”)

Think of the more racy scenes and dialogue in David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” (i.e. Helena Bonham Carter pronouncing that she hasn’t “been fucked like that since grade school”) and you’ll get an idea of where “Choke” is coming from.

Adapted from the warped psyche of Chuck Palahnuik, the same author who introduced us to Tyler Duran and “Jack’s smirking revenge,” “Choke” tells the story of medical school dropout and sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a historic interpreter at a Colonial theme park, who has far more problems in his life than imagining every female topless that he sees (including nuns).

His mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), is not winning her battle with Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know who Victor is when he sporadically visits her at the expensive mental hospital he has arranged for her to stay. Now, don’t be fooled into thinking that by tossing on a coat and cravat and pretending to be from the 18th century he can afford mommy’s private health care. Instead, Victor, who spends most of his free time with fellow sex addict Denny (Brad William Henke), performs an elaborate scheme to earn extra money to pay for his mother’s fancy living arrangements.

His scam: While dining in upscale restaurants, he makes himself choke by lodging a piece of food toward the back of his throat. He then proceeds to stumble around looking for a well-to-do sucker who will save him. By doing this, Victor creates a lifelong bond with his “savior” and later dupes the do-gooder out of cash by creating a sob story about his depressing life.

Yes, Victor is an asshole and he knows it. He also doesn’t apologize for it, even when he seems to want to change for the better. When he meets Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald), a lovely young nurse working at his mother’s rest home, there is a sign that Victor could kill us with kindness. You shouldn’t hold your breath, however.

While “Choke” plays out like a perverse fantasy from almost every angle, the comedic exchanges and dialogue are so well-crafted that a human element actually rears its head from its darkest corners. It starts with Rockwell’s performance as the potential son of Christ (his mother’s diary explains the whole insane story), a twist in the script that pushes “Choke” from distasteful to blasphemous. Rockwell, however vulgar he can get, manages to make us sympathize with his whorish character, which isn’t an easy task.

If you are easily offended, a compassionate reaction probably won’t happen and “Choke” definitely isn’t something you’d enjoy. But if you can find sweetness in even the sourest of fruits, you should let Palahnuik corrupt your mind for at least a couple of dysfunctional hours.