50/50 actually works. It made me cry twice, the second time very hard; surely that's a good thing. It suffers from a flaw common to projects that involve Seth Rogen in any capacity, which is that it would have been much better for all involved if there weren't any female characters. The performances are good, but not rock steady. This is as far as I am willing to take objectivity.
Anything I try to say about the movie will be necessarily subjective though, maybe as subjective as anything I've ever written. I can't and won't do much to fight that. See, 50/50 is about a 27-year-old man, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer, with a 50% survival rate. That's not the kind of topic that I, a twentysomething cancer survivor, feel obliged to take lightly, and at first glance, I had my knives out for this one. The film is based on the real-life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser, a friend of actor Seth Rogen, and it came to pass that Rogen decided for reasons best known to himself to use his clout and production company to let Reiser tell his story for all the world to see; this would not incidentally involve Rogen playing a character based directly on himself, which is sort of redundant when you think about the number of times that Seth Rogen has basically just played himself, but the point is this: when those first trailers hit, and they made the movie look pretty much like "A Seth Rogen Picture, With Cancer", and the plot seemed to be that cancer victim Adam and his friend Kyle (Rogen) were going to embark on a quest to get Adam laid one last time before he died.
That was a plot that I was going to lay into like a starving wolverine, and it's not the plot of 50/50 whatsoever; I imagine that it was merely Summit Entertainment's desperate attempt to find some way to make this singularly alienating material at least semi-commercial. Instead, the film follows Adam's journey from routine doctor trip to see why his back hurts, through the shock, the anger, the depression; on the outskirts, his best friend tries to be as manic and distracting as possible, both for Adam's sake and his own; Adam's girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) gets so freaked out at having a cancery boyfriend that she shuts down on him emotionally and cheats; his mother (Anjelica Huston), dealing with an Alzheimer's-ridden husband, goes into full-on smothering mode; his therapist-in-training Katherine (Anna Kendrick) flails around like an idiot and is telegraphed a bit too obviously as his love interest as soon as he can be cured and stop needing to see her in a professional capacity. There are the expected stops at crippling nausea, shaving his head, no longer being able to physically tolerate sex, and so on.
I will not lie and say that what I saw onscreen spoke to my deepest soul: Reiser's process was not the same as my process in some very key ways. But it is plain enough that 50/50 is as honest as he could make it within the parameters of an uplifting crowd-pleaser, and I don't suppose that I was moved solely because I had one too many flashbacks. This is sensitive without being pathetic, spiked with just enough sarcastic bro humor to keep it firmly in the space of "comedy" and not "drama", but not a drop more than that, and Rogen happily never pulls any of the scenes away from Gordon-Levitt's Adam as the ads all seemed to promise. It is very straightforward and very human.
Which is not to say that it couldn't be a whole lot better. The issue, I suspect, is that nobody involved wanted to make something so serious that it got dark, and that means a whole lot of pussyfooting around: the tone of the movie is resolutely laid-back and non-committal and particularly, Reiser and Gordon-Levitt and director Jonathan Levine do all they possibly can to avoid Going There except when it makes for a good climactic release. To be perfectly frank about it, cancer seems awfully annoying in 50/50, but not significantly dangerous. It's not as pat and predetermined as a sitcom, but we never really doubt that Adam will get better, that the bitchy Rachael will be dumped so that the delightful Katherine can take her place, that Adam will eventually break down weeping in front of the mother he so carefully keeps at arm's reach to avoid having to feel feelings himself. Perhaps that was also Reiser's experience, but I at least never completely bought Gordon-Levitt's performance; it kills me to say it, as I think him one of the best actors of his generation. But simply put, I didn't believe he had cancer; I believed he was an actor playing at all of the emotions he saw in the screenplay and doing it well, but there is not the agony of truth behind it.
It is a mainstream movie, though and I guess that was to be expected; it's probably enough to be grateful that Reiser's script is as excellent as it is, without needing the film to be as harrowing as I wanted it to be. That wasn't the film's goal, and it's not a flaw that it fails to be something it wasn't aiming for.
My only other complaint is the treatment of Rachael and Katherine: the former is made out to be a goddamn bitch, and it's not entirely fair to her (or, presumably, Reiser's then-girlfriend, though I do not know if the film hews to reality in that regard). It's stated outright that the relationship was coming apart even before Adam's diagnosis and that she stayed because she wanted to be supportive, but couldn't handle it. There's nothing admirable about that, but there's also nothing villainous in it, and for the film to have thrown even a smidgen of sympathy her way wouldn't have been completely out of order, infidelity or not. As for Katherine, she is, like most characters played by Anna Kendrick, hugely fucking annoying, and a wildly bad therapist to boot: movies are not holy text, but it strained my belief to the breaking point that Adam would return for a second session with a medical practitioner so plainly out of her league, eminently fuckable or no. But then, Katherine isn't meant to be a logical character, she's the sparkling and appealing pixie girl love interest who frequently makes her presence felt in male bonding comedies like this one.
Otherwise it's a good movie; not great, but sweet and well-intentioned and far more truthful than I'd have expected. There's as fantastic small performance by Philip Baker Hall as a laconic old chemo veteran, whose measured acceptance of his disease and treatment is as genuine as any movie cancer victim I can immediately remember; if the rest of the movie is slightly too cautious to join him, that does not invalidate the very genuine heart beating underneath it all. This is the nicest truthful movie about the disease that I suppose could ever be made; and having a nice attitude about being a cancer survivor isn't such a bad thing, after all.