In the days between toothless, Family Circle-style funny pages, and the rise of the indie web comic, there was a brief, shining era when American cartoonists were unlikely megastars. Gary Larson, Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson – they were as much household names as the characters they illustrated. And throwing stones on their parade was John Callahan, whose scratchy, provocative single-panel gags became the most unlikely syndicated success. Paralyzed from the neck down, he saw his disability as a license to broach every taboo subject imaginable, so every laugh came with a gasp. Whether it was cannibals, nuns, pedophiles, or his favorite target – himself – his frames were a delicious dirty secret.
Yet Gus Van Sant's long-gestating biopic Don’t Worry … isn’t really about portraying Callahan as a damaged but noble artist, turning accusing fingers back at society’s prudes. It’s about a drunk who almost got himself killed in a car crash, and is wobbling his way to an off-kilter happiness. In his second award-worthy performance of the year, Phoenix is light years away from the bloody-knuckled damage of Joe in Lynne Ramsay's powerful You Were Never Really Here. Instead, his Callahan is a success story in spite of himself, an alcoholic even after almost dying because of booze, a man burdened with a lot of psychological and emotional damage but who still uses all that as an excuse. He's literally the guy who speeds through traffic in a wheelchair (somewhere during Phoenix's repeated, unprotected plummets from his chair, there is a film insurance agent having a fainting spell).
Van Sant’s script (adapted in part from Callahan’s autobiography of the same name) doesn’t have that same sour edge that that made the cartoonist so shockingly funny. But that doesn’t mean that he’s produced the standard Oscar-bait misery memoir. Considering that he pulls the sympathy trifecta of an alienated childhood, alcoholism, and disability, that would be an easy trap into which he could fall. Instead, as he tracks Callahan from the car wreck that almost killed him to a peculiar kind of celebrity, he never forgets he's talking about a real person, not an icon. Callahan didn't let the wreck define him, and Van Sant similarly makes him fully rounded, even if not always too likable.
Yet there’s an undeniable episodic feel, and the timeline seems oddly contracted, especially when you realize that Phoenix is supposed to be playing the cartoonist from college age to his early 30s. Moreover, there are scenes that seem built to highlight a particular trait or character beat for Callahan, leaving the supporting cast a little underserved. Characters (most especially Mara as Annu, Callahan’s physiotherapist/air hostess/too good to be true girlfriend) disappear for extended periods. That’s a disappointment, because it feels like Van Sant called his actor-musician friends in for a few quick scenes without giving them much to do – an annoyance especially when it comes to Brownstein, who bristles and sparks with Callahan as an administrator who has to deal with his whining.
The only supporting part to get its real due is Hill as Donnie, John's sponsor and often the sole friend who accepts and demolishes his bullshit. Unrecognizable under an ABBA disco blond mane, Hill vaporizes the nervous and nebbish persona that has defined his career, and instead gives the film a laid-back heart that counters Callahan’s twitchy defensiveness.
Yet it's really Phoenix that binds the whole piece together. In him, Callahan is self-piteous and sardonic, wildly inappropriate and desperate to please. With much of the drama stemming from his slow slog through the 12 steps to sobriety, he never reaches for some grandiose moment of cure or salvation. Instead, Phoenix captures a life as a process, and a man of many aspects.
For an interview with director Gus Van Sant about John Callahan, and how this was almost a Robin Williams film, read "Don't Worry, Gus Van Sant Won't Get Far On Foot," July 19
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