This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a writer for public radio in Seattle, which makes him almost a poster boy for someone who should grow old and wise. He has a nagging back pain. He ends up in the office of an oncologist, who tells him it is a rare form of cancer of the spine. "50/50" was written by Will Reiser, who himself was diagnosed with a spinal tumor. Seth Rogen, who plays Adam's best friend, Kyle, is a close friend of Reiser in real life, and the movie is based on what happened in their friendship after the diagnosis.
After surgery and treatment, Reiser is currently in the sixth year of remission and cheerfully observes, "Remission apparently lasts forever … or until you die." In an interview by Jen Chaney with the two of them in the Washington Post, they joke endlessly, which is perhaps inevitable between a comedy writer and a comic actor, and although "50/50" is structured with the efficiency of a sitcom, there's an undercurrent of truth and real feeling.
Adam turns to his best buddy for support and encouragement. Kyle rises to the occasion, unlike Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his girlfriend, who (as he learns) wasn't all that committed even before the awful diagnosis. Rachael of course vows to stand by and help him, as society says we must do, but in fact, cancer is a messy and depressing business, and she signed on to be a girlfriend, not a nurse. She doesn't have the right stuff. And believe me, the challenges Adam presents for her in "50/50" are nothing compared to real life. If you've been involved in the case of a loved one with cancer, you'll observe that this girl gets off easy.
Adam is also supported, maybe too much, by his mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), who actually moves into his house. Her husband has Alzheimer's, and she's stuck by him, so she has the right stuff, but when you're sick, you need quiet time and the constant presence of a determined mother is not always what's called for.