DRAMA; 1hr 54min
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara
Opening up: from left, Phoenix and Hill
Weaving handily through the short life and high times of Portland, Oregon, cartoonist John Callahan (Phoenix), director Gus Van Sant shapes him with incisive strokes whose light touch echoes their subject’s distinctively barbed style. Van Sant’s adaptation of Callahan’s 1989 memoir opens with cuts between his early, crazy drinking and a latter-day, sober incarnation, waxing philosophical onstage from a wheelchair to a packed house.
Callahan is a survivor who discovers himself at his lowest ebb when, after a doozy of a wasted spree, a 1972 car crash (with Jack Black’s Dexter at the wheel) leaves him a quadriplegic at age 21. Initially despairing, he decides to learn to heal—an arduous climb through the AA meetings and self-examination that holds a mirror to his elemental grief and fear.
Van Sant and his cast approach Callahan's story with the care and respect it obviously warrants. Their dedication is everywhere: with Hill as his old-soul AA sponsor, Donnie; with Mara as his gentle girlfriend, Annu; and in particular, with Phoenix, who brings his fierce energy and a rough-edged tenderness to Callahan s fractured innermost self. Their gnarly commemoration of his growth and change feels well-meant and real. That said, life can be messy, repetitious and frustrating, especially for someone grappling with a profound disability. Callahan does find joy in his fresh perspective. But the road, as the song says, is long...