“Don't 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 startling frankness).

            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 abandoned wheelchair.)

            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 skepticism. 

            Carefully avoiding both smarmy triumphalism and cynical obstructionism, this gritty biography is unexpectedly inspiring.  And surprisingly bouyant.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association