The TIFF Spew: The Descendants and 50/50

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Daily reviews of some of the best and worst movies to screen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival…

The Descendants

Director: Alexander Payne

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard

When Alexander Payne jumped from a cult comic filmmaker to a critically adored auteur with the heaps of perhaps overblown praise slathered onto Sideways, there was the hope that the Election director would finally get a chance to get a few movies made without struggle. Sadly all the Oscar-winning glory from that small character piece got him was a career as a blockbuster script doctor and a directing gig on the pilot for Hung.

A full five years has passed since his last feature and it was starting to look like Payne buckled under the pressure of suddenly becoming a big name auteur. Fortunately Payne has finally returned behind the camera with The Descendants. Even though the film is never destined to be considered his finest hour, it’s still nice to know that his low-key humanist comic touch hasn’t been lost during his filmmaking exile.

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The film stars George Clooney as a Hawaiian land baron struggling to re-connect with his daughters at the same time that the plug is about to be pulled on his comatose wife. What sounds like weepy movie-of-the week territory is transformed into a delicate character comedy in Payne’s hands, with plent of melancholy peppered throughout that thankfully never turns into Oscar-speech monologuing (Payne’s eye for character and wit are simply too strong to allow that). Clooney gives a strong restrained and pained performance, though it’s always hard to buy the smirking star as a down-on-his-luck malcontent. His public persona is just too hard to set aside when watching him in those roles.

Fortunately the realism-slack is tightened by the two amazing young actresses (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who play his lovably bratty children. Payne also makes more appropriate casting choices in his collection of strong comedic supporting roles from the likes of Rob Huebel, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and the scene-stealing Nick Krause.

The only thing sadly absent from the film is the mischievous streak of satirical dark humor that flavored Payne’s previous movies. The director’s writing partner Jim Taylor is curiously missing from the writing credits on this movie and hopefully that doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped writing together. It’s great to see Payne working again and The Descendants is a perfectly enjoyable movie, but Taylor’s absence from the equation is noticeable. Hopefully it’s a brief separation because a valued filmmaking voice that lovingly satirized middle America from the inside will be lost without those writing talents collaborating. Rich guys in Hawaii just aren’t as relatable as the almost frighteningly real comic characters from the likes of Election and About Schmidt.

50/50

Director: Jonathan Levine

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick

You wouldn’t think cancer would be the right subject matter for a lighthearted buddy/stoner comedy, but then again you aren’t Seth Rogen or his friend Will Reiser, who actually survived a bout with the disease. Reiser turned the experience into a buddy comedy screenplay and Rogen helped bring it to life as both producer and wisecracking co-star.

The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Reiser stand-in, a 27-year-old radio writer who suddenly develops a rare form of spinal cancer. His girlfriend immediately starts an affair, his mother overloads him with smothering (as mothers are prone to do), and Rogen immediately comes up with ways to use it as an excuse for guilt sex (no, not with Levitt, pull your head out of the gutter!), while Levitt’s character remains oddly calm. He’s soon taking chemo with elderly cancer patients who introduce him to the wonders of medical marijuana and he’s assigned a young and delightfully neurotic therapist-in-training (Anna Kendrick) who proves to be a lovely distraction. Of course pain and panic come, but slowly and in waves. Much like I’d imagine it does in real life.

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Oddly the comedic approach to the material feels more realistic than the average cancer melodrama. Humor is a natural self-defense mechanism after all and it only makes sense that one would have to resort to survival comedy in the face of a potentially fatal run-in with the disease at the tender age of 27. Levitt is fantastic in a difficult central role, nimbly leaping from humor to pathos, often in the same scene. The supporting cast are all strong as well with Rogen bringing out his patented teddy bear stoner routine, Kendrick adding another quirky characterization to her resume, and surprisingly Anjelica Huston almost stealing the show as a hilariously overbearing mother.

Unafraid to tug at the occasional heartstring when needed, this is primarily a comedy and a better movie for it. We’ve been forced to cry about cancer far too many times, but joking about it with laughs that stick in your throat? That’s a new one. The weakest parts of the film come when Levitt is healthy at the beginning and it feels like a normal buddy comedy is on the way. I never thought I’d be able to say this, but my only real complaint about this comedy is that it possibly could have used more cancer. How about that?

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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