This film is based off the life of its writer, Will Reiser. He found out he had cancer in his twenties and went straight to surgery, skipping chemotherapy. He was also friends with Seth Rogen, who in the film plays Kyle, the friend of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is the character based on Reiser. Rogen is also producing the movie with his collaborator Evan Goldberg. I actually kind of get the vibe that the two are in a way revisiting some familiar ground as the friendship between Adam and Kyle reminds me of the friendship of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill's characters in Superbad (which Goldberg and Rogen wrote). Just replace the need to get booze with the need to overcome a cancerous tumor on one's spine, so with the help of a best friend and a cute girl, you just might complete your goal.
When Adam finds out about his cancer, he turns to Kyle and to his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) for support, but holds off on telling his mother (Anjelica Huston) because of how worrisome she can become. Adam soon finds himself going through chemotherapy with some older marijuana-loving patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) and is assigned therapy with "Dr." Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick) who is still working on her doctorate. There are times when Adam feels like he isn't going to make it, but his relationships with Katherine and Kyle help him to manage his grief.
As Kyle, Rogen is as filthy-mouthed as he is loving. As Katherine, Kendrick exemplifies inexperience with being emotionally vulnerable (I'm reminded of her performance in Up in the Air where she also played a young professional thrust into a world she may have not been ready for). As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he continues to build an impressive filmography of diverse characters. I truly can't say enough positive comments about his continuing growth as an actor. The great thing about this movie is that there is a character to relate to for just about everybody. You've either been where Adam is, had friends like Kyle, had a mother like Diane, or had a girlfriend like Rachael. If you haven't been in the shoes of any of these characters, I'd like to hope you know somebody who was or is.
Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) shows a great understanding of the story he is tasked with telling and helps to give the film an even more stylistically distinct voice. Take the scene where Adam gets high for the first time or the montage during the surgery- I feel Levine and his crew are trying their best to only improve what Reiser has given them. The film does seem to set up a traditional third act where all of the characters have moments where they open up or outright explode against each other. Despite the predictability in the structure of this story, it still left me with a memorably emotional experience. Not to say the film takes itself into a corner, it just decides to take a traditional route with somewhat untraditional material (I can think of only a few films that treaded similar ground such as Rogen's own Funny People).
A few professional critics are calling this a "cancer comedy" and are making the point in their reviews to point out how risky it might be to handle such subject matter so lightly. I do have to agree that the film does have some outrageously funny moments, but it is grounded in reality so I don't take issue with how Reiser and Levine have chosen to handle the subject matter or even think it bares as much discussion as it is getting. This wasn't like Airplane (my favorite comedy) where suddenly characters have boxing gloves and a tire iron as they tell a woman to get ahold of herself. This film (which feels more like a drama with some good jokes) treats cancer as the realistically grim situation with a character who has chosen to respond to it with humor. In the process, the truth behind the humor becomes more apparent. Even if the movie isn't close to what others might've experienced in dealing with or losing someone to cancer, I'd like to hope that 50/50 provides some comfort and at the very least puts a smile on your face through its antics.