Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

The pre-release marketing for this movie hinted at something funny and affecting and, whilst that is accurate in that there are a few laughs to be had, this disjointed biopic about Portland-based cartoonist John Callahan, on whose book the film is based, doesn’t generate anywhere near the emotional resonance that might be expected given Callahan’s life trajectory and the quality cast that writer/director Gus Van Sant has assembled. The title comes from the punchline of one of Callahan’s darkly humorous and provocative cartoons, which were often both funny and offensive and served as a catalyst for Callahan to emerge from a life of self-inflicted misery that started long before the car accident that left him a quadraplegic. The film feels as though it was put together and released with a sense of urgency, which is somewhat surprising given that the late Robin Williams first brought the project to Van Sant almost two decades ago, perhaps intending to play the lead himself. As such, it is not always easy to keep track of proceedings with the narrative chopped into bite-size chunks and delivered in a seemingly random order that is further complicated by the fact that, as Callahan, Joaquin Phoenix never really ages; he looks the same at the end as he did at the beginning of the story. Sure, the wheelchair enables us to identify moments as having taken place before or after his accident, but beyond that it is very difficult to know at what point in the story we find ourselves.

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It is the beginning of the 1970’s when we first meet a 20-something Callahan who, at this stage in his life, is already a booze-soaked loafer. When he meets fellow drunkard Dexter (Jack Black) at a party, the two set off on a night of adventure that ends with a car crash.  Whilst Dexter emerges from the accident without a scratch, Callahan is left paralysed from the chest down, a circumstance that plunges him into a spiral of self-loathing before being plucked from the depths of despair by Annu (Rooney Mara as a spitting image of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby), a physical therapist who later reappears in Callahan’s life as an air hostess (?) and becomes his lover. With only limited use of his arms, Callahan is still able to drink and continues to do so, whilst also discovering an ability to draw cartoons that will eventually lead him to be published in the likes of The New Yorker, Penthouse and National Lampoon. The eureka moment for our protagonist comes during an AA meeting when he is inspired by a speech from Donnie (Jonah Hill), a bling-bedecked braggart who subsequently agrees to serve as Callahan’s sponsor. All we learn about Donnie is that he is rich, gay, infuriatingly self-assured and already a sponsor for several others in the midst of recovery, with Hill the perfect choice to channel somebody so creepily confident.

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Whilst Donnie remains an elusive figure, the other members of his group get even shorter shrift in terms of exposition. Played by the likes of Sonic Youth bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, fellow musician Beth Ditto and veteran German actor Udo Kier, they deliver anecdotes and insights into their personal circumstances that are so fleeting as to feel trite and tokenistic, although they all fair better than Sleater-Kinney guitarist and Portlandia creator/star Carrie Brownstein as Suzanne, the caseworker overseeing Callahan’s disability benefits who seems to be missing a few scenes that might better articulate her disdain for Callahan.

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As is to be expected, Phoenix handles the countless attitudinal, emotional and physical changes of his character with a minimum of fuss and, despite the various problems with the film, there are plenty of fun moments, many of which stem from Callahan’s utter disregard for himself or others as he zooms around town on his motorised wheelchair.  Whilst not as unrepentant in his alcoholism as, say, Nicolas Cage’s Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas, it is still difficult to accept Callahan’s sudden change in perspective as he leads us on his road to recovery, a tonal shift that makes both him and the movie far less interesting.

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