The inner workings of a terminal illness movie are similar to a watch--it has tons of parts that depend on each other in order to function. If any of them are a fraction off, the whole thing misfires and you might as well cancel your pet psychic appointment because you're so late. Some of the parts include a protagonist you care about whose struggle you can relate to, life carrying on in spite of bad news, the need to relieve stress, displays of strong emotion (usually in inappropriate arenas), illogical behavior that makes perfect sense, and what it's like to notice the world's hidden beauty that we don't see until it's almost too late. 50/50 in this metaphor is like a top of the line Rolex, and takes its place among the best of the best movies about the human spirit.
Based on a true story, there's very little time to get to know perfectionist Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) before we learn he has a serious form of cancer on his spinal cord (JGL always looks kind of sickly even when he's feeling normal, so it didn't come as much of a shock to me). Seth Rogen plays his best friend Kyle, who has been a part of his life much longer than the cancer, and doesn't come with any factory-installed sympathy-type behaviors. Kyle is Adam's only real lifeline in the movie, since he feels alienated from his mother (Angelica Huston) and Alzheimer-stricken father (Serge Houde), and his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) isn't a real prizewinner either. This poor guy gets thrown into therapy with a brand-new therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who only knows what books have told her. In short, the guy is screwed in more ways than one.
The movie is a sneak attack on your empathy. Adam meanders through the same things many others before him have done on the silver screen, but in such a way that makes you care without you even knowing it. So many people lose their humanity in movies like this, but Adam just keeps being a regular guy, meeting people and opening up an entirely new world because of this horrible new club he's joined. He makes friends with two old guys getting chemo alongside him (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall), is a horrible driver, and scores with chicks because he lets it "slip" that he has a terminal illness. He gets high to ease the pain and laughs at body bags in the hospital. Seeing him onscreen is like watching yourself up there, with all your faults, managing the cards you've been dealt.
Normally in a film like this, the sad violin music would drown out anything else happening on screen. You would know that everyone was wringing out the joy from every moment and then journaling about it later. Here, though, people just hang out on the couch and clean out their cars, and they get to laugh every now and then. Seth Rogen is the best he's been in a long time, putting his awkward, sharp humor and solid acting abilities to work. Angelica Huston is on screen for about 15 minutes, but in that time, her scenes were the ones that made me cry. In fact, when I left the theater, I got in my car, and started crying again. I cried all the way home. I don't divulge that in the interest of building up the film too much, but perhaps as a gentle suggestion to have someone pick you up from the theater.