This must be a casting director’s worst nightmare — the film’s lead actor drops out of the project after principal filming starts, and they’re left scrambling to find a replacement.
That’s exactly what happened with 50/50. The critically-acclaimed Scottish actor James McAvoy backed out of the project for what have only been described as personal reasons.
As a result, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this new film — a narrative constructed around a 27-year-old radio producer from Seattle who lives a somewhat insulated life, free of any health-adverse vices. His world is rattled when persistent lower back pain turns out to be more serious than he could have ever imagined — a malignant, cancerous tumor is growing in his spinal column. His chances of living or dying are, predictably, 50/50.
The movie centres itself around Adam (Gordon-Levitt), his treatment and his journey to coming to terms with the reality of his mortality.
As the story unwinds, the rest of the cast is introduced: Seth Rogen plays Kyle, Adam’s comedic foil who has a bit of a self-centred streak. Anna Kendrick appears as Adam’s therapist and love interest, Katherine.
It’s not easy to make a movie focused around someone’s cancer treatment funny — this is definitely precarious territory and deserves sensitive treatment.
That being said, writer Will Reiser, who is a cancer survivor, manages to weave together a semi-autobiographical narrative that seamlessly swings from the dark, sinking reality of the situation to moments of outright levity and hilarity.
Gordon-Levitt deftly navigates these tonal shifts without missing a beat. He is aided by Rogen, who, though playing the same character we’ve seen from him in other celluloid endeavours, does an admirable job supporting Gordon-Levitt.
Kendrick’s portrayal of Katherine is the movie’s weakest point. The role of the young, out-of-her-depth professional was compelling in 2009’s Up in the Air, but here it feels tired, and Kendrick’s character seems like it was written into the script as an afterthought. It’s tough to discern whether this is her fault or an inherent problem in the movie’s script, but Kendrick doesn’t fare well as the love interest.
Overall, the movie is quite remarkable in how it handles and approaches its sensitive topic. It’s not entirely unusual to have a movie deal with a heavy situation and be humorous — what’s interesting here is that Reiser and the cast don’t rely on the dark humour you’d expect. The moments of levity are flashes of colour, not just snide or sarcastic additions. Despite its pitfalls, 50/50 is a well-grounded, interesting outing that certainly doesn’t suffer from McAvoy’s last-minute withdrawal.