"50/50" at TIFF

Press Conference

With Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, screenwriter Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine. JGL didn't make it to the press conference. He was stuck in traffic.

Watch the highlights here and the full press conference here.

Six years ago, screenwriter Will Reiser was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25 and shortly after a major surgery, his best friend, actor Seth Rogen took him to the movies.

“I went up to the ticket guy and said, ‘My friend just got cancer. He just had surgery and he can’t wait in this huge line-up for Batman Begins,’ ” Rogen recalled at a press conference for the film.

“We got in for free and we skipped the line. That was more of the tone of the way we would deal with it …we never really got emotional. I never sat Will down and tried to delve into what he was feeling or thinking. It was always the joking side of it.”

Reiser took the “joking side” of his experiences and wrote 50/50, a comedy which stars Seth Rogen alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 27-year-old nice guy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

The film, which screens at the Toronto International Film Festival, is directed by Jonathan Levine and also stars Bryce Dallas Howard as an unsympathetic girlfriend and Anna Kendrick as a novice therapist.

Gordon-Levitt was not present at the event — he’s on his way in a car, the journalists were told. Here are some highlights from the press conference:

Will Reiser on the story’s origin: “I had cancer six years ago when I was 25 and at the time Seth was one of my closest friends.”

“We’ve since grown apart. This movie really drove a wedge between us,” Seth Rogen added.

“The way we dealt with it was we didn’t sit around and talk about our feelings. We just made jokes and we sort of tried to make fun of the absurdity of the entire situation. One night we were at a party and someone asked me if I had made a bucket list of all I wanted to do…I was like, ‘I’m actually really sick. I just want to sleep. I don’t really want to go to Africa.’ We started talking about how there’s never been a comedy about cancer. We started talking about it, well, why don’t we do a buddy comedy.”

Seth Rogen on walking the line between funny and offensive: “To me the only line was how obnoxious can I be and still have the audience believe that Joe’s character would hang out with this guy and not tell him to f–k off. There were times when I would antagonize him so much that you’d think he’d punch me in the face and never talk to me again … It’s not our goal to put jokes in the movie to offend people — some people, but not all people.”

Bryce Dallas Howard on being the bad girl: “I spend so much time trying to be a conscientious person and when you’re given the freedom to always make the horrible choice, it’s really fun and really easy actually. I did this actually before I did The Help. I guess I just wanted the more extreme version.”

Anna Kendrick on being the go-to-girl for playing an anxious smarty-pants: “I liked how [my character's] confidence was always hanging on a thread … I liked how soft and vulnerable she was. We’ve all been in the position of trying to sound like we know what we’re doing but suspecting that everyone can see right through it. It was cathartic coming off the Oscars. I could relate.”

Seth Rogen on the scene where Adam shaves his head: ”It was a little scary because we improvised a lot of dialogue in it which is pretty f–king stupid; but we did it. That was actually the first day of shooting which makes it even stupider because we weren’t that comfortable with our characters. We wanted it to feel real. I didn’t know what Joe was going to do, honestly, if he was going to start crying or making it really emotional. And it was great how we did it. It felt totally real. I remember what we did have was a big list of bald guys because we wanted to reference funny bald guys … Patrick Stewart, Gorbachev, Jason Statham.”

“Mr. Clean,” Reiser added.

“That’s what we went in armed with: A razor and a list of bald men,” Rogen said.

Will Reiser on the scene that he connected to most: “I think the scene for me that I connect to the most is the scene in which Anjelica Huston and Joe are in the doctor’s office and they find out the bad news … Every time I thought about how difficult it was for my mother and how much I denied that at the time, that really gets me every time.

Seth Rogen on the scene that most mirrored reality: “The scene that was closest to something that happened in real life is where I’m changing the dressing on his scar.”

Reiser: “He was my nurse.”

“That one scene could have been lifted from reality and dropped into the movie which is ridiculous because that’s how I reacted that. [He turns to Reiser.] I think I almost threw up on you.”

"50/50" Portraits

Premiere and Afterparty

He may have been conspicuously absent from the 50/50 press conference yesterday afternoon (apparently, he was stuck in traffic on the way from the airport), but Joseph Gordon-Levitt was all smiles and trademark squints at the film’s red carpet presentation at Ryerson Theatre later that evening. Director Jonathan Levine took his time in front of the cameras, instructing photographers to “make me look good, I need a good shot for my IMDB.” Writer Will Reiser brought his mom, and Bryce Dallas Howard wore a long, flowing blue and white number over a very pregnant belly (yes, she was glowing). Seth Rogen and fiancée Lauren Miller were adorable together, even kissing in front of the TIFF backdrop. And Anna Kendrick is just the tiniest most adorable little pixie of a thing. In a poofy turquoise frock and absurdly high heels, she tottered back and forth signing autographs for fans, charming the pants off of just about everyone.

Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in affecting, understated '50/50'

HitFix review:

Jonathan Levine's been working in a minor key so far as a filmmaker.

His first film is the still unreleased "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane," a determined twist on slasher formula and iconography, and he followed that up with the coming-of-age story "The Wackness," and in both cases, I've got a solid case of like. I think he's interesting, and it feels to me like he's warming up. That's not an insult, either. I think Rian Johnson is still warming up. I like "Brick," and I really like "The Brothers Bloom," but those aren't the movies he'll be known for. Those are still ahead. He's a guy who is going to keep getting better. You can see it in the way he grows from first to second film, and in the ambition of what he's doing. Levine is that kind of filmmaker. I look at his movies, and I can see that he's smart, that he thinks about what he's shooting, that there's a real heart in there. Those movies are genuinely told, sincerely meant, and even if I don't love them, I like what they represent, a filmmaker who's working towards something.

I think "50/50" is a great next step for Levine, but this isn't his film as much as it's a great execution of a passion project for writer Will Reiser and producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. Levine came in late on this one, and it looks to me like this is the result of cashing in some clout and making something for a price and putting together a package that made monetary sense. Rogen plays an important role creatively off-camera, but him playing the main supporting role is also one of the reasons this got made. The casting of Bryce Dallas Howard brings another chunk of money. Same with Anna Kendrick. Same with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This package has a certain amount of box-office mathematic worth, and so you can make something personal. When people cash in their clout in moments like this, you learn a lot about them, and I think it's hard to fault Goldberg, Rogen, and Reiser for the ambition of this one. Taking Reiser's personal struggle with cancer and turning it into a film that illustrates that struggle is turning a terrifying and emotional experience into a positive, and hopefully also showing others a different face of this sort of material. We've seen a lot of movies in the past about a character struggling with a life-threatening illness, nursed for maximum emotion, but this is a different voice in the mix, a different portrayal, and I think it navigates some tricky tonal shifts in ways that are impressive and at times quite moving.

First, and absolutely foremost, is there any doubt at this point that one of the heaviest hitters in his age range is Joseph Gordon-Levitt? When he was on "Third Rock From The Sun," I used to marvel at the way he stood toe-to-toe with Lithgow and the crack timing he had in place from day one. He's like Michael J. Fox. He was just gifted with a certain sort of camera ready presence from day one, and what's happened over time is that he's really pushed himself to become a technically impressive actor, honing that natural something he has into a deadly weapon at this point. He gives off a good-natured charm in this film that turns what could be a sort of morbid whining into a sympathetic portrayal. He has to go through some tricky ups and downs in the film, and Gordon-Levitt nails it all. He never hits a false note in the movie, and he has very different chemistry with Bryce Dallas Howard as his ex-girlfriend Rachael and Anna Kendrick as his therapist, Katie, new to the job and determined to help him.

Kendrick is warm in a way I don't think we've seen from her on film before, and it's a nice change. There's a definite throughline from "Rocket Science" to "Up In The Air" for her, and there's a type of role she's been given for the most part, but this feels like a major shift. Her job is to try to make a connection with her patient, and Adam is one of the very first people she's assigned to help. There's a desperation she's fighting in the film that makes her very vulnerable, and Kendrick offers up a very rich performance. You get a lot of subtext from what she's doing in the film, and she makes some very interesting choices. It's a nice case of casting against type, and I expect it will expand the sorts of things Kendrick is offered in the future.

Rogen does exactly what you expect, the opposite of the Kendrick role, but that's because he's sort of playing himself and Evan and all of Reiser's real-life friends who went through his cancer with him. I ilke that the movie isn't about making saints of anyone, but instead, it's an attempt to capture the light moments that make it possible to survive the darker moments on the rollercoaster of being seriously sick. Rogen never overpowers the movie, but he definitely gives what I would call the definition of a supporting performance. He's there to lay groundwork for everything Gordon-Levitt's doing, and he's the guy who is the sounding board in some of Gordon-Levitt's greatest stuff. Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall both show up in small but important roles, and they're both great, as expected.

I like that the film feels so rough-hewn, sort of intentionally ragged on a technical level, like it's raw. Here. We shot it. Boom. It doesn't feel oversweetened, and it strips away a lot of the artifice that can be a problem in a typical Hollywood treatment of something like this. Terry Stacey has a interesting track record including films like "American Splendor" and "Adventureland," and he keeps things loose and makes it all feel stolen. Michael Giacchino does an impressive job of restraining himself, keeping the score simple and direct. It would be easy to bury the movie in fake emotion with a score that does it all for you, but it really doesn't pour it on. That makes it more affecting, more tender.

It's not often that I think a "here's my experience of something horrible but ultimately life-affirming" movie has the potential to really break out commercially, but "50/50" is the sort of film that audiences love to experience together. It's powerful, and there's a real release to sharing this, which is one of the points of making the movie in the first place. The degree to which the film works is the nice surprise here, and I hope people take a chance on this one.

"50/50" opens in theaters September 30, 2011.

JoBlo review:

Cancer's a pretty tough subject for a comedy. Anyone remember "Fanboys"? The cancer subplot to that film worked so poorly, it almost got excised completely, and unless you're golden-age James L. Brooks (who's "Terms of Endearment" is name checked here), it's probably best to leave it alone. However, I'm pleased to report that not only does "50/50" work, but for the most part it works brilliantly.

Astoundingly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost didn't end up playing the lead, which seems tailor made for him. James McAvoy was originally signed before dropping out, and while I'm sure he would have done a fine job, this is a powerhouse for Levitt, who I think deserves some award consideration for his role here. He's terrific as the quiet, easygoing Adam, who even the most cynical viewer will like right from the first shot, where he hesitates to jay-walk, just on the one-in-a-million chance that a car comes along and clips him.

Inspired (but not directly based) on the experiences of Will Reiser, having the cancer patient be twenty-seven is unusual, as young men are not typically the kind of cancer patient portrayed, but alas, cancer knows no prejudice. Levitt's Adam keeps a brave face and a good attitude throughout, but at the same time, we see how he struggles everyday with the uncertainty his disease brings him. Still, he manages to keep his cool, until a cathartic emotional scene late in the film that is deeply affecting, and perfectly acted by Levitt- who really needs to be considered an A-list leading man from now on.

Levitt gets able support from all-around, with Seth Rogen having a key part as Adam's supportive best friend, who tries to keep his buddy sane (and high-HIGH- with lots of medicinal marijuana playing a part) throughout, establishing a pity-free relationship, which is what anyone caught in a similar circumstance would need. This is Rogen's best role in a long time, and one that plays to all of his strengths. He's funny, but in a loose, not-over the top funny face kind of way, and it's the kind of role someone like John Belushi or John Candy could have played in their prime.

Anna Kendrick from "Up in the Air" is on-board as Adam's therapist/love interest, who takes him on as her first patient, but finds herself drawn into his struggle, being someone with whom she has so much in common. Kendrick is sweet, and makes an appealing love interest. Anjelica Huston also has a gem of a role as Adam's overbearing mother, who also has an Alzheimer’s afflicted husband to deal with. This role initially comes off as a tad cartoonish, but later in the film, we get another perspective, and by the end, I was convinced that if the film hits like it should, she could find herself nominated for best supporting actress. Philip Baker Hall also has a fantastic part, opposite Max Headroom-himself, Matt Frewer, as Adam's fellow, foul-mouthed cancer patient, who introduces him to the pleasure of hash cookies.

The only part in "50/50" that comes off a tad one-note is Howard as Levitt's transparent girlfriend, who we know is going to bail right from the first frame. She's a little too shrewish, but even she gets a nice scene towards the end that gives her character a little nuance.

"50/50" could have be a remarkably sad film, but luckily director Jonathan Levine (who did "The Wackness") has a light enough touch that it never gets to that point- neither does it get maudlin, although don't be surprised if you let go of a few tears towards the end. I had a lump in my throat the last twenty-minutes. It's really the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy, and among the top-tier of films I've been lucky enough to catch at this year's TIFF. It's a wonderful film, and one that deserves to be appreciated.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.