The ageing enfant terrible Gus Van Sant directed this mostly true biopic concerning the life and times of cartoonist and activist (sort of) John Callahan (1951-2010).
While there’s been unnecessary controversy about Joaquin Phoenix filling the role of the quadriplegic guy, this star nevertheless is very strong here, depicting John with at times jet-black humour and a kind of brutal tenderness. Van Sant nearly made a film about Callahan in the ‘90s with the late Robin Williams (who won an Oscar for his performance in Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting and is here thanked in the credits). The filmmaker wrote the script with input from Callahan and his family, and the result is unsparing and unsentimental, but still pretty damn moving.
A fractured narrative begins with the wheelchair-bound John in an Oregon AA group, cuts to his “last day walking” in the early ‘70s and leaps around a lot thereon, skipping over important events throughout the decades and mainly shying away from too many tears and speeches. The drying-out (and sometimes relapsing) John talks about himself and we build, with considerable dread, to the circumstances surrounding the accident that changed his life completely, as he enjoyed a big, boozy bender with a new pal named Dexter (Jack Black, excellent in straight-ish mode).
A spell where he’s completely paralysed in what now looks like hopelessly primitive and cruel hospital is brightened when he meets Annu, a Swedish nurse played by Rooney Mara, and later when he’s given what, for then, was a technologically-advanced wheelchair. He also responds to the harsh honesty of an AA meeting hosted by the rich, hippy-ish Donnie (a slimmed-down Jonah Hill), and after Donnie becomes his sponsor, John joins a smaller bunch of ‘piglets’ to work painfully through the AA steps. They’re quite a mob too, and include Mike (Mark Webber), Corky (Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth), Hans (cult figure Udo Kier) and Reba (Beth Ditto), who in a cutting key moment tells him to shut up with all the ‘poor me’ crap (a sequence that just about sums up John Callahan perfectly).
Finding that he has a talent for drawing after regaining some use of his upper body, John starts to turn out the cartoons that would make him famous and often hated, and we see many of these one-panel gags where crudely-drawn jokes are made about the KKK keeping their sheets clean, religion (Christ on the cross saying “Thank God It’s Friday” is quite something) and so on. Few of them would be allowed in these nervous PC days, and their publication frequently led to boycotts, hate mail and death threats, but huge praise and hilarity from people in the disabled communities. And that’s what John wanted: he loathed the idea of non-‘quads’ making decisions for him and rebelled against it at every point, often while barely managing to hold a bottle of cheap booze in his hands.
Featuring Van Sant’s cool knack for music (Danny Elfman’s jazzy score is fabulous, and there aren’t many movies that dare have crucial emotional scenes set to the tune of Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me), this offers one of Phoenix’s best and most committed performances, in what’s, of course, a very difficult part. He is a fairly great actor when he’s not trying so hard to be a (deep breath) ‘Great Actor’.