DVD Drop: Unexpected depths
So-called "cancer comedy" "50/50" and fighting robot drama "Real Steel" hit video shelves this week
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen in "50/50" (Summit Entertainment/eOne Entertainment)
There's an unspoken rule that movies can only be about one thing these days. You get one message -- one theme, one idea -- and that's it. Anything more would confuse and anger the audience, ensuring your movie tanks at the box office.
You have to be very clever to work in a complex metaphor and still have a hit; Christopher Nolan did it in "Inception," a head-spinning chase picture that also functions as an allegory for the collaborative process of moviemaking, and Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" wraps some very astute social commentary in the body of a disaster movie, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule.
This week sees the arrival of two movies that may not reach the same heights of intertextuality as the aforementioned releases, but they nevertheless expand the boundaries of their chosen genres. Both Jonathan Levine's "50/50" and Shawn Levy's "Real Steel" -- yes, the Seth Rogen cancer comedy and the one with Hugh Jackman teaching robots to box -- are up to more than they first appear. I'll explain.
It's impossible to discuss "50/50" -- a refreshingly honest comedy about a 27-year-old awkwardly facing mortality when he's diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer -- without acknowledging the fact that screenwriter Will Reiser is basically telling his own story, and that producer-star Seth Rogen is essentially playing himself opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Reiser surrogate Adam. And had Reiser focused exclusively on that, writing a buddy movie about two friends confronting one's illness, "50/50" would probably have still been a pretty good picture; Gordon-Levitt and Rogen have an appealing chemistry, and there are some moving observations about the phases of Adam's journey of diagnosis and treatment.
But "50/50" opens itself up to being something more when it acknowledges that Adam isn't the only person who's unprepared for his ordeal. Reiser and director Levine are careful to show us that none of their characters are ready for the more basic challenge of living their lives. Rogen's Kyle doesn't know how to help his friend through his disease; Anna Kendrick's Kate doesn't know if she's capable of being an effective therapist to people who may be facing the end of their lives, and Adam's mother (Anjelica Huston) certainly isn't ready to lose her son.
All of the characters are hobbled by self-doubt and fear; there's no question that Adam's facing the toughest challenge, but by addressing that larger note of humanity and giving the supporting characters the same weight and respect, Reiser and Levine have made a movie that's about more than one person's experience. There's something in it that can speak to everyone.
Being mostly a movie about robots that punch each other in the face, "Real Steel" is not, at first glance, a movie for everyone. And the marketing more or less acknowledged that, playing up the CG action and the easily understood emotional through-line of estranged father Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and his son Max (Dakota Goyo), who forge a relationship while restoring and training a junked model they call Atom.
All of that stuff is perfectly serviceable, and director Levy -- the guys behind the "Night at the Museum" movies and "Date Night" -- makes sure to deliver the elements of a solid Hollywood entertainment; take away the robots and "Real Steel" could just as easily be a 1940s B-picture about a broken-down fighter and his kid, like "The Champ." But Levy and his screenwriter John Gatins (working from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven adapted from Richard Matheson's short story "Steel") use the movie's near-future setting to reflect back on our current reality, framing the action in an America still reeling from the economic collapse of 2008. A dozen years later, the country is just putting itself back together; fossil fuels have been replaced with synthetic oils and solar cells, and smartphones are a lot smarter, but it's clear that the United States has fallen behind the rest of the globe in the intervening years.
Consider the companies that are seen advertising in the film, and the way Jackman and Goyo's Japanese rivals are received as an entirely different species when they arrive in the arena; the disparity is never explicitly stated, but it's there, and the movie feels richer for including that detail.
There are little observations like that sprinkled throughout "Real Steel" -- like the way Charlie and his ex-wife (Hope Davis) navigate the world in radically different ways, or the sense that the ostensible villain (Kevin Durand) has entirely valid reasons to be coming after Charlie when Charlie skips out on a debt. His response may be disproportionate to the offense, but in a world where people are always one bad deal away from financial disaster, disproportionate responses are understandable.
I'm not making a case for "Real Steel" as the first studio picture to embody the Occupy movement or anything, but there's no question that this stuff is on its mind. Some viewers will bliss out on the parts where the robots punch each other in the head, and others will enjoy the scenes where Jackman and Evangeline Lilly make goo-goo eyes at each other, and still others will appreciate the father-son stuff, which Jackman and Goyo invest with surprising depth. But the subtext knits it all together in a really satisfying way; yes, it's a genre picture about boxing robots, but it's also about the way the world works, if you care to pay attention. And that's a really nice surprise.
E-mail Norman Wilner at firstname.lastname@example.org