I'd argue that the people who are turned off by the film's marketing campaign are exactly the people who would
benefit most from seeing it. Full disclosure: In 2003, my older brother was diagnosed with a malignant bone cancer. Despite two years of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, the cancer proved too aggressive, and he passed away after the
disease spread to his lungs in February of 2005.
I'm explaining this for people who, like me, generally approach movies about cancer the way most people approach bear traps. I could never bear the
idea of sitting in a movie theater watching someone pretend to suffer for two hours, after I'd watched my brother actually suffer for two years. I was
particularly troubled by movies like A Walk to Remember or Love Story, which use cancer diagnosis as a second-act plot twist.
is something of a rarity: a "cancer movie" where the main character is actually the one who has cancer. There's a good reason for that. Screenwriter Will Reiser—a real-life friend of costar Seth Rogen—heavily based his script (originally titled I'm With Cancer) on his own battle with cancer. 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a young radio-station employee in Seattle. He has a crude best friend
(Seth Rogen, essentially playing Seth Rogen), an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and a steady girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard).
But crucially—and this is where most cancer movies go wrong—none of those things goes away after Adam is diagnosed with cancer. His best
friend is still crude. His mother is even more overbearing. And his relationship runs into problems that have nothing to do with his illness. Cancer doesn't make the rest of Adam's life go away. It just makes it that much harder to deal with.
The film is refreshingly realistic in its depiction of cancer treatment. As a response to Love Story, Roger Ebert coined the phrase "Ali MacGraw's disease": a "movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches." Adam is not fortunate enough to
contract "Ali McGraw's disease" along with his neurofibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma. The scene in which Adam shaves his head, which has featured heavily in 50/50's promotional materials, is played successfully for comedy. But the film doesn't refrain from showing Adam's constant sense of lethargy, or his night vomiting, or how his cancer makes everything, including sex, almost totally unenjoyable.
50/50 is also very specifically grounded in what it's like to have cancer now. When the doctor's wordy, rapid-fire diagnosis confuses Adam, he just
goes home and looks up "schwanomma" on WebMD. When he tells Kyle he has cancer, Kyle's mind immediately jumps to the celebrities who've survived it
(including Lance Armstrong and "Dexter"). His well-meaning friends and mother foist stupid, new-age cures on Adam, and he's just desperate enough to
try them. 50/50 is smart enough to recognize that the cancer experience is both universally relatable and incredibly specific, and it nails both
sides of the equation.