Opening 16 Aug 2018
As the truth wiggles out of John, it almost mimics his squiggly-line cartoon drawings that come later. However, first comes the “last day I walked…” The backbone of writer-director Gus Van Sant’s screenplay is John Callahan’s same-titled autobiography—his droll wit is obvious. The film’s premise is how sometimes tragedy might have a benefit.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers another impressive performance as John Callahan, a troubled bitter shirker with a boulder-size chip on his shoulder. An accident’s life-altering aftermath is his wake-up call. Stumbling along the rocky, sometimes-treacherous path to sobriety, John’s self-pity is entrenched. False starts and detours are rough, except for a group that is even tougher. Jonah Hill is commanding as Donnie, the group’s sponsor; essentially, he only insists on two things from each person. In a scene between Phoenix and Hill—they interact wonderfully onscreen—toward the end, Hill sweetly portrays the conflicts of family obligations vs. recognizing self-worth. The group members are well cast – Beth Ditto, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Kim Gordon, Udo Kier. In fact, the least challenging role is unfortunately Rooney Mara’s character as the girlfriend.
Van Sant puts a lot of faith in audiences to follow a storyline that unravels over a years-apart period. Three seemingly disjointed scenes with Callahan open the film; each is at various levels of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-Step program. Sometimes though, after Callahan takes the first step it is hard to differentiate at which level we are. Since Van Sant co-edits with David Marks, why, as director, did he not alter physical attributes, or change settings to help guide audiences. Consequently, pay close attention to the subtle distinctions Phoenix adds to his portrayal. Danny Elfman’s distinctive music and Christopher Blauvelt’s close and personal cinematography are noteworthy.
Van Sant shrewdly balances clarifications to the realities, adding a certain nuance to some of the harder, oftentimes ugly and definitely painful truths. We laugh, and perhaps blot a tear, but audiences are not reduced to feeling pity for any of the characters. Contrarily, by conveying the circumstances and conditions, the perspective gives understanding. The honesty depicted brings with it relief, a sense of resilience, and humor, the best medicine of all. Even cartoons have stories to share. (Marinell Haegelin)
John (Joaquin Phoenix), age 21, goes out wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt and 1970 sunglasses and feels like he is going to die unless he gets a drink. He then proceeds to hit the night life full of parties and fun, but ends up bumming around with Dexter (Jack Black), another serious addict, and before long they head from one party to the next, losing consciousness of how much they consumed. The final blow is a serious accident when his drinking buddy falls asleep at the wheel and wrecks his car. His friend walks away unscathed and John ends up in the hospital being a quadriplegic. Annu (Rooney Mara), a physical therapist, gives him hope and, with his offbeat sense of humor, tries to find out the meaning of life.
Based on the memoirs of the talented cartoonist John Callahan, this shows a very sensitive, but dark, portrayal of a serious alcoholic who has gone way out of bounds. He then miraculously uses not only his will power but has a chance meeting at a unique self-help Alcoholic Anonymous group run by a self-proclaimed guru hippie Donnie (Johan Hill) who helps to piece his life back together by using his artistic talents and humor. The jokes are not exactly politically correct but are appropriate to the time period and you are guaranteed to laugh at both the performances given by Joaquin Phoenix and Johan Hill. This film also gives you an appreciation for what is important in life and the importance to take on the responsibility to live your life to the fullest and help others do it as well. There is no excuse not to do it. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)