November 14, 2019

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Biopic compels but can't follow through

Tale of paralyzed cartoonist lacking despite director's sensitivity and star's commitment

Based on the true story of John Callahan — the Portland, Ore.-based cartoonist paralyzed from the neck down after a car crash at age 21, who kicked his alcoholism and started drawing — this unusual drama avoids almost all the clichés of the inspirational-biopic genre.

Movie review

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara and Jonah Hill
McGillivray
14A
115 minutes
★★★1/2 stars

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara and Jonah Hill
McGillivray
14A
115 minutes
★★★1/2 stars

Other voices

Leave it to filmmaker Gus Van Sant to make a film about a hopeless drunk who becomes a quadriplegic into a story that's funny, dark, sad, sweet and even sort of inspirational.

— Bruce DeMara, Toronto Star

A movie that's supposed to inspire winds up being irritating instead.

— Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

The film, loosely adapted from Callahan's life, is as divisive as his work, sure to be considered brutally funny by some and brutally insensitive by others.

— Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

It's not convincing that Callahan's well-being is truly at stake. Yet the movie is vital, with a pleasantly loose-flowing tone and message that art and humour can mend the spirit.

— Anita Katz, San Francisco Examiner

Staggering between corny conventionality and zesty, upbeat weirdness, Don't Worry never fully acknowledges the cruelty and selfishness required to sustain a longtime habit.

— Jennette Catsoulis, New York Times

Still, director Gus Van Sant can’t quite match the sharp, dark, polarizing power of Callahan’s own work, which resolutely rejected the pity and forced sentimentality that sometimes surrounds disability. This is, after all, a guy who titled his autobiography Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?

Van Sant (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Milk), whose indie work during the past 15 years or so has been uneven and unpredictable but often interesting, uses an impressionistic style in which sudden, vivid images and moments are loosely connected by a saggy story structure.

The film’s shape, such as it is, comes instead from an unsparing central performance by Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, Her, Irrational Man) and strong support from an eclectic ensemble cast.

We see John as a young man — and Phoenix may be incredible, but his range doesn’t quite extend to passing as a 21-year-old — sneaking some tequila on the way back from a morning liquor-mart run.

He drinks his way through a fuzzy day, and later runs into Dexter (Jack Black, in party mode). Their fateful, drunken night ends with them both stumbling into a car and Dexter hitting a tree at high spped.

Dexter walks away with a few bruises. John is left paralyzed from the neck down, with some limited movement in his arms.

Then, it’s rehabilitation and a squalid domestic setup with an erratic caregiver, which involves John with a medical establishment and social-assistance authorities who are portrayed as almost uniformly awful. One doctor sums up John as a "C5-C6," without even bothering to say his name.

Joaquin Phoenix (left) stars as paralyzed cartoonist John Callahan and Jonah Hill portrays Callahan's AA sponsor, Donnie. (Amazon Studio photos)

SUNDANCE INSTITUTE

Joaquin Phoenix (left) stars as paralyzed cartoonist John Callahan and Jonah Hill portrays Callahan's AA sponsor, Donnie. (Amazon Studio photos)

A low point comes when the wheelchair-bound John is left home alone with liquor bottles he can’t reach. Ultimately, he realizes that what’s keeping him from leading a full life is not his quadriplegia but his alcoholism.

He joins Alcoholics Anonymous and starts working the program, and the complicated back-and-forth of addiction and recovery makes for the most compelling section of the film.

John gets support from his girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara). A composite character based on several women in Callahan’s life, she feels like a composite character. Donnie (Jonah Hill), on the other hand, John’s louche, wealthy AA sponsor, is unique.

Van Sant tracks some tricky dynamics as Donnie practises a particularly bitchy form of tough love with his group. These scenes are psychologically acute, and the participants are played by a fascinating bunch of actors, including Udo Kier, cultie muse of Andy Warhol and Guy Maddin; queer-punk musician Beth Ditto; and Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth star and all-round experimental icon, here playing a polished former trophy wife.

John, right, runs into Dexter (Jack Black) and their fateful drunken nights ends with a car crash.

SCOTT PATRICK GREEN / AMAZON STUDIOS / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

John, right, runs into Dexter (Jack Black) and their fateful drunken nights ends with a car crash.

Meanwhile, John keeps drawing cartoons, viewed as hilarious by some and offensive by others, with a rough, edgy style that suits his subject matter.

Some of these drawings, brought to life in animated vignettes, add a little energy to John’s story, as do scenes in which he speeds around the sidewalks and streets of Portland in his motorized wheelchair, driving like a maniac.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole stalls out in the second half.

Van Sant’s approach is sensitive and Phoenix’s work is committed, but the invigorating anger of Callahan himself is lacking.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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