The whimsical biopic of cartoonist John Callahan is weighed down with sentiment

by James Robins / 08 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Dont Worry He Wont Get Far on Foot John Callahan
Misfits, dolts, dropouts, hustlers, loners and outsiders: these are the raw materials of film-maker Gus Van Sant. His catalogue – from My Own Private Idaho and Elephant, to Drugstore Cowboy – is strewn with them. Often they’re left to wallow in misery and become studies in hopeless despair. But, every now and then, he lets them dust themselves off and start again.

That was the case in Good Will Hunting, Van Sant’s most forgiving and beloved work, and it’s true of this biopic of John Callahan, a famously dry-witted cartoonist from Portland who spent most of his life as a quadriplegic and big drinker.

This whimsical, oddball film follows Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. It flashes back to his pickled days and explores his addiction, but the momentum is progressively optimistic and positive.

Along the recovery route, he picks up new friends: Swedish nurse Annu (Rooney Mara), who is so ethereal you expect her to be a fictional invention, and campy AA sponsor Donnie. He’s played by Jonah Hill, once a staple of schlocky American pot-comedy, now a frequent upstager of leading men. Hill’s flamboyant performance is one of the best parts of the film.

Van Sant seems to relish Callahan’s mordant sense of humour, and much of Don’t Worry shares his surreal irreverence. Some of his cartoons are animated into the action, including one showing a blob of bacteria morphing into a goofy amphibian, then a dinosaur, a Neanderthal and, finally, a man in a suit standing before a microphone saying, “I’d like to thank all those who made it possible for me to be here tonight.”

And then we actually get that line as Callahan appears triumphant before a cheering crowd, marking the film’s decline into squishy sentiment. “You’re doing an extraordinary thing,” Callahan is told by a supporter. Well, that may be so, and tales of resilience like this ought to be full of praise for their subjects, but Callahan always poked fun at his own condition and expected no special treatment. I suspect he would have got to the end of this biopic and scoffed at its earnestness.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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