Review © Jane Freebury
Rated M, 1 hr 54 mins
Screening at Dendy and Palace Electric
The cartoon that lends its caption to this Gus Van Sant film shows a sheriff’s posse staring at an empty wheelchair among cactus in the desert. The rough line drawing instantly conveys a lot about the artist and the bleak, irreverent humour that made him famous. The American cartoonist, the late John Callahan, also chose it for the title of his autobiography in 1990.
Callahan was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident while on a bender with a friend when they were young and reckless. Miraculously, his mate, Dexter (Jack Black), who was at the wheel, walked away from the overturned VW Beetle with a few scratches, but the misadventure turned John into a quadriplegic. Eventually he recovered limited use of his arms.
If he wasn’t already prone to a bit of self-destruction, this convinced young John that there wasn’t a lot of point to it all. The hapless 21-year-old wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with. Struggling with feelings of abandonment – he’d been adopted, never knew his birth mother – John (Joaquin Phoenix in the role) was going nowhere, a flask of tequila for company.
The late Robin Williams was once keen for this role, but I can’t see that he could have worked as well as Phoenix. In unkempt, ginger wig, flip-flops and the flares of the day, his performance as Callahan is pitch-perfect.
And Phoenix has form in this kind of character – remember the execrable I’m Still Here – but he is talented and versatile with substantial range. Compelling as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or as reclusive writer (Her), and both as Jesus (Mary Magdalene) and evil Roman emperor (Gladiator).
The same can be said of filmmaker, Van Sant, who has been giving us food for thought over the years with his distinctive explorations of the private worlds of creative types, often musicians, often marginalised, and other characters at the crossroads.
In Don’t Worry, Donny (Jonah Hill), the silky voiced leader of the alcoholics recovery group that Callahan has signed up to, becomes just about as interesting as Callahan. Maybe more so.
Actor Jonah Hill, in heavy disguise in long blonde wig and beard, and 70s smart casual, demonstrates, with perhaps a hint of menace, the subtle art of influence and persuasion, and how folks can be shown how they themselves contribute to their predicament.
It is less easy to believe in Rooney Mara’s character, Annu, a Swedish physiotherapist who has a big hand in Callahan’s rehabilitation, but her romance with him is at least a welcome diversion after some gruelling early scenes of Callahan in disarray. Curiously, Van Sant was able to make scenes of flying along the pavement in a wheelchair uplifting too, and that’s before we even get to the humour.
How did Callahan find his mojo and become a famous cartoonist in America and overseas? His path to fame and some version of happiness is revealed in this touching, free-wheeling character study, that feels authentic and has no truck with feel-good homily. It shows, once again, Van Sant’s flair for drawing his audience into a private world and convincing them, for the duration, that they are experiencing it too.
Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra and 90.3 Tuggeranong