You might not know the name or life story of cartoonist John Callahan, but you likely know his work. His most famous cartoon, “Thanks Evolution,” depicts the evolution of man, amoebas, fish and cavemen climbing out of the ocean, transforming into a man standing at a podium saying “I’d like to thank all those who made it possible for me to be here tonight.” It’s emblematic of Callahan’s style: simple, funny and makes you think – a sardonic commentary on existence. And what an existence it took to shape this singular perspective. Gus Van Sant documents this life in the Callahan biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” adapted from Callahan’s memoir, taking the title from one of his other famous cartoons.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, Van Sant depicts the slice of his life that led to his becoming a cartoonist, and is it ever a doozy. Through a fractured, nonlinear mixed-up jumble of a narrative, we meet John Callahan, a famous Portland cartoonist, delivering a speech to a crowd of adoring fans. We meet John Callahan, a quadriplegic in a motorized wheelchair fighting with a devastating alcohol addiction at AA meetings. We meet John Callahan, a Southern California gardener in the throes of his alcoholism, chasing girls and obliviously hurtling headlong toward the defining moment of his life, ushered there by a drunken new friend (Jack Black), behind the wheel of John’s jalopy after a night of wild partying. Within this nonlinear timeline, we come to understand John’s past, present and future simultaneously.
One might look at the film about a quadriplegic man who becomes a cartoonist and think it’s about his disabling injury, the way the catastrophic accident took away his life. But what threatens him most is his addiction, and the film is far more about that struggle. John’s accident gave him his life – he finds the freedom to be himself not because of his condition, but because his disability forced him to do the work to pull himself out of the mess.
John finds his guru (and sponsor) in Donnie (Jonah Hill), a gay trust fund hippie who shares the same ironic humor as John, and his other sponsees, or “piglets” as he calls them. He calls his higher power “Chucky” and ends every conversation with the enigmatic advice to “drink water,” and yet John responds to Donnie’s forthright nature and encouragement to delve deep into his pain to find healing and forgiveness for himself and others. The group therapy scenes are truly the emotional meat of the film, with co-stars Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, Ronnie Adrian, Udo Kier and Mark Webber making up the motley crew.
Phoenix, unsurprisingly, gives a performance that’s completely immersed in the character, but it’s Hill who proves once again he’s much more than his comedic origins, crafting a compelling portrayal of the elusive Donnie that just about steals the whole movie.
Van Sant slowly untangles the narrative along the way, paving the way for a climatic triumph. The dark story didn’t need to be sanded down for a Hollywood ending, especially with John’s sarcastic, bemused perspective, but after the pain and loss he endures – abandoned by his mother, addicted to alcohol, body altered forever – the little bit of peace he earns while finding his voice is both hard-fought and satisfying.
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