Overall verdict: 9/10
The Good: clever mix of tragedy and comedy, never overly melodramatic, subject matter is handled sensitively despite the comedy, excellent cast chemistry, nuanced acting
The Bad: cliche story premise
Adam Lerner has a pretty sweet life. He lives with his hot artist girlfriend, hangs out with his funny best buddy Kyle, and holds a cool job as a radio journalist. Life is good, life is normal, life could not have been better. And then one day, he discovers he has cancer. Now before you expect another tragic sob story full of teary emotions and melodrama, stop right there. And no, neither is this a light hearted buddy laugh fest. Adam Learner deals with his 50% chance of survival and the fallout which destroys the perfect life as he comes to terms with his fate.
We all know that "beats" of a typical cancer story. The five stages of grief form the narrative skeleton of the movie as Adam goes from denial through anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance of his fate. What is different here is how Adam deals with each stage. From befriending an inexperienced psychiatrist to going along with Kyle's suggestion of using the cancer to score chicks, Adam tries to live his remaining days to the fullest.
Central to the movie is both the characters and the actors portraying them. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam as the quintessential "everyman". Here is an actor who says a lot about the character without actually saying much. His earnest and increadibly nuanced performance makes it easy for anyone to relate to Adam's plight. The paranoia of an uncertain future, the sense of betrayal when someone dear to you betrays your trust or the frustration at an over-protective smothering mother is carefully yet lightheartedly explored.
How this film works is that it plays on the audience's stereotypical expectations then throws in a twist. You can see that in how it uses a familiar premise of a terminal illness but weaves an original tale. It is apparent in the characters too. Seth Rogan's Kyle is obviously the bumbling comic relief right? Well you might be surprised with the many layers to his character. Oh, Adam is so going to fall for his psychiatrist right? Perhaps, but not in the way you might be expecting.
"Natural" would be the proper word to describe the way all the characters are fully fleshed out. And rightly so since 50/50 has the advantage of being based loosely on the real life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser. It feels less like a story per se and really like taking a peek into someone's diary entry. Yet thanks to the awesome cast, timely humor and fresh dialogue, it never feels mundane.
In the end, we are left with a powerful message about the people who truly care in a crisis. The emotional spectrum never veers into the extreme, effectively balancing the tragedy and comedy. Criticising the unoriginal premise is easy, but 50/50 scores in its fun but bittersweet execution of a tried and true narrative.
Go For it: if you would like to see a refreshing take on the "I am dying from an incurable disease" genre of drama movies.
Avoid it: if a few dirty jokes would put you off
Replay value: A