50/50 one of year’s best; Daniel Craig cracks up in Dream House

by Mark Burger

Cancer is not a topic typically conducive to comedy, so 50/50 earns immediate attention by approaching the topic with a different point-of-view. The film takes chances throughout, and the surprise is that the vast majority of them pay off beautifully. 50/50 is one of the best films of the year and a surefire Oscar contender.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of our best young actors, strides confidently into the limelight as Adam, a young man unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. (“The more syllables, the worse it is,” notes a fellow patient.)

Embarking on a rigorous campaign of chemotherapy, Adam is thrust into a change of life in which every minute counts. Yet this exploration of the human condition is fraught with as much humor and absurdity as it is with dramatic resonance. 50/50 is outrageously funny at times, deeply moving at others, and both at its best — which is suprisingly and delightfully frequent.

The balance of comedy and drama is executed with exquisite, but never showy, finesse by director Jonathan Levine, whose best film to date this is. Adam’s illness is emphasized but not overemphasized, which likely would have sent 50/50 into typical tearjerker territory. Screenwriter Will Reiser (also an executive producer and co-star) based the story on actual events in his life, and empathy is one of the film’s strongest assets. These are characters you believe in and care about.

Gordon-Levitt’s triumphant turn anchors one of the year’s best-acted films, with topnotch contributions by Seth Rogen (also a producer) as Adam’s party-hearty best friend, Anna Kendrick as Adam’s concerned but inexperienced young therapist, Bryce Dallas Howard as the girlfriend who gets away (not a moment too soon) and Anjelica Huston and Serge Houde as Adam’s parents — already dealing with Dad’s ongoing dementia. Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer lend tremendous levity as fellow cancer patients who show Adam the ropes. Andrew Airlie plays Adam’s deadpan doctor, whose bedside manner might best be described as non-existent, yet his is also a credible character.

50/50’s got a lot of heart, thanks to that cast, yet it never wallows in the story’s inherent sympathy. And by not outstaying its welcome, it proves very welcome. Powerful, perceptive, punchy — and about as perfect a movie as American audiences could hope for.

If you’ve seen the trailer then you know the twist, but Dream House is an entertaining diversion this Halloween season.

Daniel Craig plays the all-American dad who quits his job to spend time at the family’s new home in bucolic Connecticut, aiming toward writing the Great American Novel. Rachel Weisz (whom Craig married in real life shortly after filming) plays the faithful and frisky wife, real-life sisters Claire and Taylor Geare play the picture-perfect daughters, and Naomi Watts the neighbor.

The house, of course, has a history (Uh-oh!), and it’s not long before Craig cracks up when he realizes that the house may be less haunted than he is. At which point the movie becomes something of a whodunit.

More a psychological thriller than a flat-out ghost story, Dream House benefits from quick pacing (all the better to ignore whatever plot holes crop up — and there are a few), shrewd cinematography (courtesy Caleb Deschanel, bypassing more arty fare — and why not?), and the sort of slightly goofy momentum that similarly propels a potboiler novel. It’s a juicy, well-made piece of hokum — and certainly no disrespect on that count.

Dream House isn’t a particularly deep or resonant film, although it takes greater strides in that direction than the vast majority of spooky movies. Director Jim Sheridan’s body of work (including Best Director Oscar nominations for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father) might seem at odds with this sort of material, yet his humanist bent fits, as the story emphasizes character and mood over blood and guts.

Craig holds his own nicely, the charismatic facade crumbling as the plot screws start turning, yet the character always accessible. Watts and Weisz, concealing native accents (Australian and British, respectively) better than their leading man, lend weight to the proceedings. There’s a smooth, professional competence at work here, and it works well.

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