Joaquin Phoenix Stars in this John Callahan biopic


By Liz Lopez

Rating: B+

Director/writer Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “To Die For”) has created a wonderful biopic about cartoonist John Callahan, based on the book by the quadriplegic artist about his story, along with co-writers Jack Gibson and William Andrew Eatman. It has taken over two decades for Callahan’s story to reach audiences. 

The story is non-linear, as it covers the time from the past (before his accident) to the present, showing how Callahan was an alcoholic — something that started as a young teen – leading to a chaotic world and difficulty for his recovery. Callahan’s story of alcoholism and a night of partying with Dexter (Jack Black) who drove while intoxicated led to an accident that altered the young man’s life.

The casting of so many talented actors and excellent performances (lead and supporting) is a total draw for this film. Phoenix is transformed with “electric orange” hair and makeup, and is quite a character with his attitude about sex and life among other topics in his comics that alienated some newspaper and magazine readers and potentially the movie audience. Once he is provided with an electric wheelchair, he speeds around town as if he owns the streets, but also across live railroad tracks, on some young teens’ makeshift skateboarding ramps and more.

Callahan’s injury that left him in traction led to him looking at and setting priorities, but it was not an overnight change. It took several years and the viewer learns of the ups and downs to combat his addiction with the 12-step program. Eventually, he seeks a sponsor, Donny (Jonah Hill, in a stand out performance) and in group seeks a life toward sobriety. Among the group that Donny sponsors is Hans (German actor Udo Kier) and Reba (indie rocker Beth Ditto), who make their group-sharing sessions quite interesting and earn laughs.

Among the ensemble cast is the lovely Rooney Mara as Annu, a Swedish physical therapist who cares for him and Callahan is enamored of her. It is nice to see their initial flirtations lead to her possibly becoming the first woman he fell in love with. There are some sweet scenes of them together gleefully riding along together around town on his wheelchair. Through the film, Donny and Annu are the two very influential people in his road to recovery and perhaps have the most touching scenes.

The film also contains cast members Tony Greenhand, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Kim Gordon, and Carrie Brownstein among the large cast. Callahan certainly creates quite a varied circle to support him as he overcomes his addiction and learns to live life in his condition – especially after the scenes of forgiveness with so many people he connected with.

Danny Elfman’s score is very good and if you are not familiar with Callahan’s single-panel cartoons, the film gives you several opportunities to either laugh out loud or take a step back as you gasp.

The R rated film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and now opens in Austin theaters July 19, 2018.

Source: Amazon Studios

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