Cancer dramas are a dime a dozen, so devising a fresh take on the deadly disease is a challenge for any filmmaker. Few would be bold enough to attempt a comedic angle, but screenwriter Will Reiser has concocted an engaging, though often vulgar, dramedy that finds true-to-life humor in the experiences and relationships of a young man suffering from cancer.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has lived his life playing it safe: no drinking, no smoking, and no driving-because it's the fifth leading cause of death. He has a gregarious, foul-mouthed best friend (Seth Rogen), a beautiful but needy girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), and a mother with smothering instincts (Anjelica Huston).
When he discovers his back pain is a malignant tumor that needs a series of chemotherapy treatments followed by risky surgery, his well-meaning friends and family offer various, largely unwanted, coping techniques. His girlfriend buys him a dog, his mother offers to move in with him, and, after he breaks up with his girlfriend, his best friend suggests he use his condition to pick up women.
Striving to maintain some sense of normalcy, Adam reluctantly sees a hospital-recommended therapist (Anna Kendrick), who turns out to be a young and untested doctoral student, learning as much about herself as about Adam while she tries to help him. He also finds some engaging and sometimes-helpful company in two older men going through cancer treatments themselves, played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, who offer home-spun wisdom along with marijuana-laced macaroon cookies.
Gordon-Levitt delivers a relatable performance, effectively showing how Adam tries to maintain his identity while dealing with the challenges his condition presents, both physically and in his relationships. Kendrick convincingly demonstrates the real difficulties a young therapist can have in balancing personal concern for her patient's well-being while maintaining a professional distance. Rogen's blowhard character ensures the film never descends into melodrama, but his too-frequent use of profanity (the primary reason the film earned an R rating) keeps 50/50 from reaching its full potential as a sincerely moving but grounded take on handling cancer.