Greetings again from the darkness. Being neither an alcoholic, an artist nor a quadriplegic, I found myself wondering if I would be able to connect at all with the real life story of John Callahan. At most, I figured another stellar, oddball performance from Joaquin Phoenix might keep me engaged. It turns out, director Gus Van Sant (GOOD WILL HUNTING, 1999) focuses more on the quite interesting road to sobriety … a road that also happens to lead directly to a reason to live.
Based on Mr. Callahan’s autobiography, the film stars the enigmatic Mr. Phoenix. First seen as a 21 year old (a bit of a stretch) slacker who constantly needs a “fix” of alcohol, no matter the time of day, the talented actor excels after the alcohol-induced car accident that robs Callahan completely of the use of his legs, leaving him only minimal function with arms and hands. Even this doesn’t inspire Callahan to give up the bottle. However, a vision of his mother does. Callahan’s mommy issues are a key element of the story, as she gave him up for infant adoption – leading to many years of drowning his self-pity in whatever type of alcohol was in the glass.
The film picks up some momentum once Callahan begins attending AA group therapy sessions conducted by Donnie (Jonah Hill). Donnie is part Zen sponsor and trust fund guru. It’s a wonderful performance from Mr. Hill, who makes the most of each of his scenes. Others in the group include a terrific (musician) Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame), (German icon) Udo Kier, Ronnie Adrian and Mark Webber. Individually they don’t have much to do, but they do make for a fascinating group. Also appearing are Tony Greenhand as Callahan’s attendant, the fabulously talented Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s physical therapist-turned-girlfriend. Ms. Mara is especially short-changed in the script.
It was 1972 and Callahan was 21 when the car accident left him a quadriplegic. Slowly, he discovered his talent as a cartoonist – albeit a controversial and darkly funny one. In today’s climate of political correctness, it’s likely Callahan would find no audience, but at the time, he developed a national following. This was the time of other single panel cartoonists like Gary Larson and Bill Watterson.
Attempting to avoid the traditional and familiar biopic structure, director Van Sant (who has a cameo) chops the movie into bits that work better individually than as a whole. At times it plays like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. But some of the bits are outstanding. The film is somehow both funny and sad, and includes a terrific scene near the end with Callahan and Jack Black’s Dexter reuniting for the first time since the accident. It’s a powerfully honest scene.
A destructive lifestyle doesn’t always lead to good things, and substance abuse is not very entertaining – though, the road to recovery can be. Getting of glimpse of the 12 step program, we see that not drinking is merely the beginning. It’s like a runner who must first lace up his shoes before beginning the actual run. Callahan died in 2010 at age 59, but his impact continues.
watch the trailer: