Most people who’ve had serious illnesses would tell you that humor is an important part of coping with disease, but movies tend to focus on tragedy and poignancy over jokes, only allowing tame bits of comic relief into stories about noble suffering and sacrifice. There’s no shortage of poignancy in 50/50, but the movie is unmistakably a comedy, dialing back the treacly inspiration in favor of a clear-eyed, matter-of-fact look at the horror and hilarity of facing cancer at a devastatingly young age.
Screenwriter Will Reiser based the movie on his own experiences, and it has the truthful air of someone who knows what he’s talking about and isn’t interested in pulling punches. Reiser is represented by Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old writer for Seattle Public Radio who’s diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer. Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen, Reiser’s real-life buddy) piggybacks on sympathy for Adam’s condition to score phone numbers from women, while Adam’s girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) pledges to stand by him but finds herself completely unequipped for a role as caretaker. The flawed, human responses of the people in Adam’s life (including his overbearing mother, played by Anjelica Huston) are as moving and real as the emotions with which Adam himself deals.
They’re also quite funny, although Howard’s character gets treated a little unfairly in favor of dude bonding between Adam and Kyle and a potential new love interest in Adam’s inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick). Reiser and director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) never pull too hard on the heartstrings, nor do they oversell the humor, even if Rogen is still playing the same basic character he plays in every movie. The result is a story that feels genuinely balanced, that provokes laughter or tears only when they’re earned. That might make it a little less cathartic than a straight-up weepie, but real life doesn’t offer satisfying closure from one good cry. It’s more complicated and disappointing but also a lot funnier, something that 50/50 understands incredibly well.