Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot”
John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mess.
He's a slacker and a heavy drinker who sometimes house paints.
Though he could be witty and charming at times, and enjoyed the
pretty young women of Portland in the 70's as much as he could, he was
really in love with the bottle. So
much so that one night after a particularly heavy binge session, he got in
the car with a fellow drunk, Dexter (Jack Black), and the next thing he
knew, he's in the hospital. Paralyzed.
So now he's on triple withdrawal---from the booze, from the
cigarettes, and from being able to move about freely.
The only small comfort he had was a volunteer, Annu (Rooney Mara),
who at least spoke kindly to him and gave him something to look forward
to, just by visiting him occasionally.
A simplistic formula would have been for Callhan to undergo some
ephiphany during his physical rehabilitation, so that by the time he was
at least able to sit up in a wheelchair, he would have come to grips with
his new reality and decided to become a productive citizen.
But it just wasn't that easy. Callhan
fought it every step of the way. He
got back into the booze. Now
on government disability, he had a caretaker who also supplied him with
the liquor. He was angry at
the world and feeling sorry for himself.
But somehow we viewers are still rooting for him, possibly because
everything he does is genuine. He
may be crass, selfish, crude, and boorish, but he is seemingly incapable
of pretense or deceit. What we
see is what we get. And what
we see is a man desperately in need of redemption.
Here's another opportunity for Director Gus Van Sant to get sappy
on us, but he refuses. Callahan
stumbles into an AA group led by the enigmatic but strangely compelling
Donnie (Jonah Hill), and Callahan struggles there, as well.
At first, he doesn't want to admit that he can't control himself.
Then argues about the whole “Higher Power” concept.
There are too many people Callahan doesn't want to forgive,
including the mother who gave him up for adoption.
And the last person Callhan wants to blame is himself, but ever so
gently, Donnie leads him to it, and through it.
But Donnie has his flaws, as well, freely admitting that his being
helpful to others is actually rewarding for himself.
And Donnie has his own struggles with sexuality, which Callahan
knows something about as a paraplegic (and which the movie treats with
Eventually, Callahan re-discovers his interest in art, this time
utilizing that hard-bitten, ironic sense of humor, in cartoons that were
at first published locally, then nationally, but never without
controversy. (The title of the
film is the caption for one of his cartoons, where a posse comes across an
Joaquin Phoenix has the force of personality to pull of this
complex character, and Jonah Hill is a revelation as the reluctant faith
teacher. True, the whole AA
twelve-step program doesn't work for everyone.
But at the very least, it challenges people to quit blaming
everyone else. And invites
people to look for a spiritual dimension even in the midst of their
Carefully avoiding both smarmy triumphalism and cynical
obstructionism, this gritty biography is unexpectedly inspiring.
And surprisingly bouyant.