Monday, 22 October 2018

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot review: Callahan biopic in good and bad taste

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot review: Callahan biopic in good and bad taste
26 Sep

This line supplied the title for Callahan’s 1989 memoir, which is the basis for Gus Van Sant’s funny and moving biopic. As Callahan, Joaquin Phoenix plausibly suggests the complex personality behind the cartoons: a laidback dropout with an endearingly corny sense of humour who is also a heavy drinker prone to fits of rage fuelled by resentment of the mother who gave him up at birth.

The anger in Callahan’s cartoons can be taken to stem from another source as well: rendered quadriplegic in a car accident at 21, he regained only partial use of his upper body, drawing his cartoons laboriously with a pen held between his hands (the finished products appear in the film as brief snippets of animation).

Skipping around in time, He Won’t Get Far on Foot shows the lead-up to the accident – Jack Black plays the drinking buddy at the wheel – alongside Callahan’s subsequent efforts to rebuild his life, signing up for Alcoholics Anonymous and gradually finding professional success.

Van Sant has had his own ups and downs since he came to fame in the 1990s as a leading light of New Queer Cinema. Some of his later work has an apparent naivety that has alienated even his fans (as in the unfairly reviled Sea of Trees, the film that brought Matthew McConaughey’s comeback to a dead stop).

Like Richard Linklater, but in a different way, Van Sant has a very American drive to keep reinventing himself, staying true to impulse rather than letting things get too studied. Self-reinvention, in another sense, is what this film is all about – and Van Sant’s identification with his hero is evident in his choice of the middle-aged Phoenix for a role that might have suited a much younger actor.

Still, the film has many of the hallmarks of a Van Sant production, including an affection for misfits and an unorthodox approach to casting: the members of Callahan’s AA support group are a hilariously eclectic bunch, among them singers Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon and the ageless European cult star Udo Kier.

All this could feel precious and maudlin if not for the cool abstraction which is the other side of Van Sant’s emotional directness. Part of what draws him to the subject matter seems to be the gliding motion of Callahan’s wheelchair, recalling similar forms of motion in his previous films – the tracking shots down school corridors in Elephant, or the teenagers getting around on skateboards in Paranoid Park.

There are teen skaters in this film as well, who rush to Callahan’s aid when he comes a cropper on his wheelchair, gathering round him like so many disciples. This is a sign of what will follow: Van Sant’s religious side is to the fore here, tinged as usual with his oblique, teasing eroticism. No one else would think to cast the normally pugnacious Jonah Hill as the angel-headed hipster who becomes Callahan’s sponsor and spiritual guide, preaching submission to a higher power in between weekends at gay clubs.

Ever since this project was announced it has attracted criticism in some quarters: why should the role of Callahan be given to a non-disabled star such as Phoenix, especially considering the dearth of opportunities for actors living with comparable conditions? As if to address this, the film makes a point of Callahan’s own indifference to standards of good taste, while acknowledging that his cartoons are open to multiple readings and that not everyone finds them funny.

Ultimately, the film functions the same way these cartoons do, through exaggeration and metaphor. Van Sant treats Callahan’s quadriplegia as a heightened image of the limitations everyone must struggle with, yet insists that this is not the defining fact about the character’s identity. First and foremost he’s an artist, or becomes one – and this at least is something that he, Phoenix and Van Sant all share.



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