Monday, October 17, 2011

Terminally affecting/irritating: 50/50 and Restless

Making a movie about terminal illness can be like walking a tightrope. Walk the line beautifully and you can make something powerful such as Terms of Endearment or Longtime Companion. Lose your balance and you end up with a noble movie no one wants to see (Funny People) or you fail outright (Autumn in New York, Sweet November, too many movies on Lifetime).

Two movies in theaters right now deal with the prospect of imminent death: 50/50 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Restless, directed by Gus Van Sant. 50/50 walks its line gracefully, resulting in one of the most affecting films of the year. Restless, on the other hand, made me feel that very way.

Having Seth Rogen in your movie cracking jokes about the Big C may put some people off on first blush. But, in a refreshingly rare instance, the 50/50 trailer doesn't tell the whole story. Rogen has been close friends with  Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with cancer at an appallingly young age. This film is based on their real-life experiences.

What makes the film work is that even though it's viewed through  the lead characters' eyes, it's just as much about how his illness affects other people: How it forces Rogen's character to be more than a wisecracking jack-ass, how it forces his hovering mother (Anjelica Huston) to relinquish a little control, and how it exposes the true character of his girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

As I noted recently, Howard's turn as an odious social climber in The Help may cause her to be typecast as snotty bitches, and I'm sure 50/50's release so soon after The Help is by accident and not design. Yet to Howard's credit, her character is not inherently bad, it's more that she goes in over her head. The dynamics between her and Gordon-Levitt set the tension in the film.

Counterbalancing that tension is Anna Kendrick, who plays his inexperienced therapist, who, if memory serves, is actually younger than her patient.  It seems  like a contrivance that a patient with a rare form of cancer would be sent to a "teaching hospital," but the relationship that develops is touching enough that I didn't mind. 

In her Oscar-nominated role in Up in the Air, Kendrick played a woman with a brittle exterior masking a sensitive interior. Here, she plays the inverse: an outwardly sensitive woman who tries to put on an "impartial" exterior that is ill at ease with her heart. She's a fascinating character, and her pairing with Gordon-Levitt elevates 50/50.

Another young actress I very much admire, Mia Wasikowska, was my primary draw to Restless. She was the best thing about Tim Burton's muddled Alice in Wonderland, I loved her supporting work in The Kids are All Right, and her lead turn in this year's Jane Eyre. Unsurprisingly, I loved her character in Restless, but surprisingly, I rather disliked the movie.

The film's director is Gus Van Sant, who seems to be going for the sort of quirky/morbid vibe found in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. What we get instead  is an uncomfortable amalgam of Van Sant's mainstream hits (Good Will Hunting) and his more offbeat, indie fare (Paranoid Park).

Wasikowska shines in her part as a free spirit who has three months to live. She has taken to crashing funerals with a forlorn young man (Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis) who had his own brush with death when his parents were killed in a car crash that sent him into a coma. He recovers physically, but not mentally until Wasikowska comes his way.

Wasikowska's Annabel is quirky but utterly lovable. She's the sort of person you want to hug for a long time. That being the case, many of the scenes with the couple are heartwarming.

Unfortunately, Van Sant and writer Jason Lew fail to find a shape for the material. They can't decide between straight ahead teenage angst and self-conscious oddity, and too often, the latter rules the day. Take, for example, the Battleship games Hopper always loses with his imaginary friend, who is a Japanese kamikaze pilot ghost.

See what I mean?

I didn't want Wasikowska to die. But I must confess that when the film came to its end, I was rather relieved.  In an incredible coincidence, one of Restless' producers is a Bryce Dallas Howard - whom I hope in the future will be as good at picking scripts as she is playing unsympathetic women.

50/50: A-

Restless: C+

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