The hook, the thing everybody wants to talk about, is that this is a comedy about cancer. But there are already a lot of those (okay, they're actually just unintentionally funny dramas about cancer, but that's still some laughs). This movie is more than just ha-ha-ha-chemo or a convincing argument for the benefits of medical marijuana.
Joseph Gordon Levitt's character, a health-conscious, National Public Radio-employed Seattle man who discovers he has a malignant tumor growing on his spine, weathers the storm with the help of Seth Rogen, the Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger, a co-worker whose chief talents are distraction (helping his friend pick up girls by using the dire diagnosis as bait) and disarming, uncomfortable jokes about the illness itself. It's funny, smart and moving, walking the next-to-impossible tightrope of comedy and drama without overdosing on either. It's the cancer movie where guys eat pot macaroons and talk about their balls.
And that means that the segment of the moviegoing population that hates dude-comedies on principle should just stay away. You'll hate it and there'll be no convincing you otherwise. But the best examples of this genre serve a real purpose. They actually teach young men lessons about how to avoid turning into dirtbags and, here at least, what it means to be a friend in a moment of crisis.
Now, you don't have to love Kevin Smith's Clerks or the Judd Apatow-touched gang that includes The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad and I Love You Man, but you can't talk about male friendship comedies of the past two decades without connecting the dots through all of these films. And you also can't deny that they spend their entire running times talking and talking and talking in a seriously stupid-smart way about a chunk of the population that's marketed to and pandered to a lot but never really investigated beyond quick assumptions about their weed habits, video game preferences, work ethic and time spent sitting on the couch.
If you're a fan and want to enjoy the surface laughs and never think beyond that, you can. Or you could see them for what they really are: intelligent movies in dumb clothes that push the conversation forward about what it means to be a non-gun-toting man right now. They have an agenda beyond making money and are the opposite of pointless garbage like The Change-Up, the kind of film that settles for easy jokes about food rotting in the refrigerator or dirty socks while patting itself on the back for it, the kind of movie with nothing on its mind.
If the good examples of the genre display a consistent flaw, it in the one-dimensional female characters. This time around, Anjelica Huston is effectively nervous in a very small role and Anna Kendrick finds the right way through her unsure therapist character, but Bryce Dallas Howard -- as JGL's skittish, unhelpful girlfriend -- gets the short end of the sympathy stick when the movie turns her into a villain.
50/50 works best when the guys are busy being guys. Joseph Gorden Levitt is the patient straight man to Rogen here, who keeps the comedy spinning as his friend gets sicker and sicker. Rogen is a love-him-or-hate-him type, but at a young age he's already pretty great at finding the common idiocy in any situation; he's the insightful doofus who's not a jerk at heart, just a regular, thick-headed guy who wants to do the right thing -- while baked. His performance is proof that if you got sick yourself, you'd want somebody like him around, a friend who'd keep his worry to himself, make you laugh and focus on sharing his stash of special-ingredient-laced cookies instead.