50/50 is the story of Adam (Gordon-Levitt) a young man with a successful journalism career, an attractive girlfriend (Howard), and no real vices. However, a persistent nagging back pain sends him to visit his doctor, the doctor refers him to a specialist, the specialist orders some tests and then Adam finds himself with a cancer diagnosis and a 50% chance of survival. Determined to face his illness rationally, Adam is referred to an inexperienced psychologist (Kendrick) to work through his feelings. His best friend Kyle (Rogen) tries to keep Adam’s spirits up maybe less than ideal for the job, especially when he tries to use Adam’s illness as a pick-up method.
50/50 is being sold as a comedy – which is understandable, as a mostly sober drama tackling the subject of cancer in the young is rather more of a hard sell. The latter is a more accurate description of the film. There is comedy – Rogan does his usual schtick and there are some very funny sections – but unlike TV’s The Big C, which uses cancer as a backdrop and isn’t really about the disease in any serious way, 50/50 is definitely a film about cancer. Gordon-Levitt delivers a great performance as a character who is not always completely sympathetic, and the scenes between him and Kendrick deftly explore the psychological states the character goes through. There is a very fine supporting performance from Anjelica Huston as Adam’s over-protective mother, who is also dealing with a husband with advanced Alzheimer's disease.
Where the film puts a foot wrong it is in the character of his girlfriend Rachael. This is a thankless role for Howard following a similar one in Clint Eastwood’s dismal Hereafter, elsewhere the film nicely avoids cliche but from the introduction of this character it is all too obvious where this plot strand will go. The real romance of the film is between Adam and Kyle. Although Rogan plays a very, very familiar character (the high functioning stoner with a potty mouth) the relationship between the two characters ultimately becomes a moving depiction of platonic male friendship and affection.
The film is nicely directed by Levine (who made All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, and The Wackness), he manages a few stylish sequences, but mostly keeps things visually low key and concentrates on letting the actors and the script take centre stage. Apart from dropping the ball with Howard’s character, Will Reiser’s loosely autobiographical screenplay is both witty and emotionally truthful. This is sometimes a difficult watch, but it is a rewarding one, and one that avoids the pitfalls of employing crass sentimentality or becoming misery porn.