Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for public radio, has a girlfriend - artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) - his best friend is Kyle (Seth Rogen) who infuriates him and makes him laugh in equal measure, his mother (Anjelica Huston) is controlling but has his senile father to take care of, and basically Adam thinks he has enough to worry about. He is also a non-smoking, teetotal health nut of twenty-seven years of age, but he has been suffering a pain in his back recently. It's probably nothing, but he visits the doctor anyway: better safe than sorry, eh?
How about safe and sorry at the same time? That's because Adam has a cancerous tumour in his back, something he finds hard to process, but then so did the writer of 50/50 Will Reiser who was encouraged by his friend and colleague Rogen to pen this script about his own battle with the disease. The results he made into a comedy, but while some would think there was something disrespectful about adopting that subject as something to laugh about, actually the condition itself was far from taken lightly, indeed there were many moments of emotional pain as Adam, Will's surrogate, struggled to cope.
But the point was that Adam, for all the way he was unprepared for this body slam out of the blue, was far better at dealing with it than those around him, who all have different reactions but none of them helpful. Rachael is supportive but feeling her boyfriend isn't long for this world begins looking around for another partner without telling him; his mother Adam has to keep at arm's length because of her smothering ways, and Kyle's horror that he might be losing his friend does not translate into anything but a self-centred and clumsy attempt at cheering him up. Then there's his therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is younger than Adam is and inexperienced to say the least.
For a good half of 50/50 the unfolding drama, however funny individual lines are (painfully so, in some cases), there's the air of the point-scoring about Reiser's script, as if he was getting back at all those around him who failed miserably to make him feel any better about a rather desperate diagnosis. The character of Rachael especially seemed to be some kind of revenge on every girlfriend, every woman in fact, who had rejected him down the years, and there's a bitterness to the tone which works against complete wallowing in the whole laughing in the face of death theme. Yet Gordon-Levitt was such a skilled actor that we could perceive a sympathy and a frustration in his interpretation of the character.
So with the opening fifty percent of the movie, if you like, doing everyone down in their miserable tries at being a tower of strength, the latter fifty percent was far better handled in terms of the emotion director Jonathan Levine and his team were trying to bring out. Even with all the off colour jokes, many of them expertly handled by Rogen (by now a past master at such humour) you might be surprised at how moving the results could be once it had settled down and we are increasingly unsure of how Adam will survive - Reiser did, but we cannot be certain about the protagonist here. There were still problems in those stages, for one thing Katherine may be callow, but even the most unprofessional therapist knows better than to get so involved with her patients, and it appeared for the sake of a rather too Hollywood denouement, but Reiser understood all too well that not everyone was as lucky as him, if you could call getting cancer in your twenties lucky. Getting through it was the important thing. Music by Michael Giacchino.