Inside a wheelchair-bound artist’s dizzying addiction spiral

Inside a wheelchair-bound artist’s dizzying addiction spiral

The title of Gus Van Sant’s new biopic is the caption from one of its subject’s skewed cartoons, which depicts a cowboy posse gazing down at an empty wheelchair.

Quadriplegic artist John Callahan frequently mocked his own disability, and jabbed gleefully at every other group, too, leading predictably to cries of outrage — which only goaded him on.

But his life’s work is secondary to Van Sant’s focus on the alcoholism that led Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) to his paralyzing car accident, and subsequent redemption via Alcoholics Anonymous. The result is a film that traffics in the kind of melodrama the late Callahan might well have had a field day sending up.

Still, Phoenix hasn’t turned in a bad performance in ages — one of his first great ones as an adult was in Van Sant’s “To Die For” back in 1995 — and he disappears completely into the cartoonist’s off-kilter persona, rocketing down sidewalks at dangerous speeds in his electric wheelchair.

He’s matched by Jonah Hill, intense and a little ethereal as Callahan’s AA sponsor. Rooney Mara plays yet another supportive-girlfriend role as Callahan’s nurse-turned-squeeze, and a few female rockers show up: Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”) is Callahan’s caseworker and Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto are fellow AA members.

As an addiction memoir, it works well enough; there are a handful of deeply felt moments, including a long-delayed conversation between Callahan and the driver (Jack Black) of the car that left him in a wheelchair. But if you really want to get a sense of the cartoonist and his appreciation for life’s absurdity, you’re better off reading Van Sant’s source material: Callahan’s autobiography of the same name.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of
avatar
wpDiscuz