In the mid-90s, Robin Williams purchased the rights to artist John Callahan’s story (based on his memoir Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?). At the time Williams was working on Good Will Hunting (this movie reminds me of it in certain ways). Director Gus Van Sant was directing that film, and he and Williams tinkered around with various screenplays. In 2010, Callahan died, and Williams was saddened and put the film on the shelf. When Williams took his life, the film wasn’t even talked about, until Van Sant got a call from Sony. They had a movie they wanted to make about Callahan, and Joaquin Phoenix was cast. He’s terrific in the role, always the chameleon. In fact, the entire cast is terrific. Jack Black plays a humorous drinking buddy he meets at a party. Rooney Mara plays a physical therapist and possible love interest. A thinner Jonah Hill plays a rich, new-agey, gay, spiritual AA sponsor that Callahan likes and respects.
This interesting biopic shows Callahan’s heavy drinking, and the car accident that left him a quadriplegic. He starts to attend AA meetings (although my wife and I thought after watching this movie, he never really stopped drinking. I had to Google and find out he stopped when he was 27).
Donnie (Jonah Hill, who will surely get an Oscar nomination) is charming and funny, and Callahan likes how he runs things with his group. He also seems to really be working the 12 steps (aside from giving up the booze). And, we get to see how Callahan channels his dark humor into comic strips. Van Sant does a terrific job of showing us the illustrations and letting us read the funny captions, as well as watching him create it (which at times reminded me of the criminally underseen movie Maudie from last year). It was also fun to see him get rejection letters from the New Yorker, and get accepted in Penthouse, as well as a gig at a local paper in Portland.
It was a pleasant surprise that the film never felt like a preachy after-school special. It was also nice that the emotional moments all felt authentic and developed in the story organically. A number of the scenes really moved me. I thought of how I felt as a 12-year-old watching disabled characters hanging out in a bar in Inside Moves (John Savage, David Morse).
The score was provided by frequent Van Sant collaborator Danny Elfman, who makes it jazzy and inventive. And Van Sant has worked with Phoenix before (To Die For). He’s also worked with his late brother River (My Own Private Idaho), and his sister Rain (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).
If you don’t know anything about Callahan or his art, you might enjoy the picture even more. It’s not for the PC police, though. His humor could get dark and often offended people. Here’s an example of one of the few funny comic strips he did I can describe. A homeless guy with sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, is begging for money. The sign he’s holding says, “Help! I’m blind and black, and not a musician.”
Speaking of musicians, movie gets bonus points for casting punk goddess Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Seeing her was a pleasant surprise, and reminded me of seeing X bassist John Doe in Boogie Nights.
3 ½ stars out of 5.