Life in the funny pages

Biopic of John Callahan as dark-humored as his comics

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill and Jack Black. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

The new Gus Van Sant movie may not be one of his very best, but it is unmistakably the work of that auteur, which is to say one of the most interesting and original American filmmakers of the last 30 years. That alone would make it a matter of exceptional interest, even if it didn’t have a lot more than that to offer.

That it also features Joaquin Phoenix giving a sharp performance in a major role is probably what audiences are most likely to remember about the film—along with its free-form rendition of the life story of the late John Callahan, a flamboyantly alcoholic quadriplegic who found his way into a spectacular and controversial career as a newspaper cartoonist.

The story is adapted from Callahan’s 1989 memoir (also titled Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot). That unwieldy-looking title figures as the punchline of a distinctively personal Callahan cartoon, which is one of many that punctuate the film from time to time.

Van Sant uses a poetically scrambled time scheme as Callahan’s story moves forward, backward and sideways, associatively linking scenes and moments from separate times and places. Prominent among those times and places are a series of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a palatial mansion; Callahan delivering his AA spiel from the stage in a packed auditorium; Callahan working his way into an increasingly impressive set of newspaper jobs; bizarre episodes in bars, bedrooms and hospitals; and a “catastrophic” car wreck.

Phoenix seems heroically weird in Callahan’s moments of solitary rebellion. But his very best work emerges in relationship scenes that bring out mixtures of raucous humor and wounded tenderness in Callahan. A wild night of drunken binging with a pathetically reckless roisterer (Jack Black) becomes a framing event for the story as a whole, but most of the best bi-play resides in the AA meetings “sponsored” by a wealthy pretty boy named Donnie (Jonah Hill).

Hill and Black both deliver curiously offbeat performances—with Black bringing touches of real insanity and shame to his customary comic excess, and Hill exuding weary pathos and good will while also hinting at some deeper darkness just below the surface. It also helps a lot that the AA meetings at Donnie’s mansion are attended by a group that includes characters played by musicians Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto and horror film icon Udo Kier.

Rooney Mara is sensational as the angelic nurse who falls in love with Callahan, but she comes across as too much the creature of male fantasy in a movie that is generally pretty wary of wishful thinking and illusory innocence.

The story itself plays out a little too much like textbook AA gospel. I’m guessing that fuller development of the ambivalences in Donnie’s scenes with Callahan might have put that “gospel” element in a much more complex and revelatory light.