If you're already a dead-end alcoholic, probably the last thing you need is a booze-fueled highway crash that severs your spine and leaves you a quadriplegic, right? Like, what next?
This is what happened to the late cartoonist John Callahan, who subsequently adopted a harsh, jokey tone in dealing with physical impairment (and everything else) in his work. In Gus Van Sant's new movie, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," we see Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as a young wastrel shuffling around Portland, Oregon, in never-ending search of a drink. (Van Sant has a fine eye for the details of the blotto lifestyle — like the morning liquor-store visit that requires a nervous exchange of empty pleasantries with a clerk before one can desperately request a cheap pint.)
We follow Callahan to a party where he meets a fellow lush named Dexter (Jack Black), and then to a bar for a bout of two-fisted drinking. Then there's a strip-club visit, more drinking, and before long we're outside again, watching Dexter get behind the wheel of Callahan's car. Very soon afterward he drives it into a utility pole at 90 miles an hour. Dexter walks away with minor injuries. Callahan never walks again.
This story would seem an unlikely prospect for conversion into popular entertainment. But Van Sant's gentle narrative eccentricities (which include elements of magical realism) burnish the material. And the wonderful performances he elicits from his actors are reason enough to make a point of seeing the film.
When Callahan finally resolves to free himself of his alcohol addiction — in 1978, five years after his accident, back in his native Oregon — he ends up in an Alcoholics Anonymous group presided over by a wealthy reformed drunk named Donnie, played by Jonah Hill with a vibrant emotional command. Donnie, with his blond beard and his shoulder-length hair and his tiny little earring, gives off a vague post-hippie vibe; but he rules his AA group with a steely determination, never letting any of the members off the hook when it comes to pinpointing who's really responsible for the wreckage of their lives: It's them. (Among the other rehabbers here are a number of notable musicians: Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein and a spunky Beth Ditto.) Hill's performance is so carefully worked out, we always have a sense of the other life Donnie must be living offscreen — a life of vast inherited riches ("It's nice, but it's stupid," he tells Callahan) and, as we slowly come to realize, lonely sorrows, too. For anyone unaware of what a fine actor Jonah Hill is, this movie provides the latest proof.
The picture is both moving (without leaning on us to be moved) and surprisingly funny. Van Sant doesn't just show us Callahan's nightmarish post-crash quadriplegia: He brings us inside the man's head, and we feel his terror at the realization that nothing in his life will ever be the same again. What would it be like to have a drop of sweat (or is it a tear?) hanging off the end of your nose and to no longer be capable of wiping it away? How can a paralyzed alcoholic find a way to continue drinking? What do cripples (Callahan's pugnacious term) do for sex?
As Callahan is contemplating that last conundrum, Rooney Mara enters the picture like a rush of sunshine (something I never imagined I'd be saying about Rooney Mara). She plays a blithe spirit named Annu, a Swedish woman who walks into Callahan's crowded hospital ward, looks right at him — strapped to a bed and immobile — and says, "Wow, you're very good-looking." Annu becomes Callahan's confiding angel. At first she appears to be a therapist of some sort (she tells him she has "other appointments" to attend to), but then halfway through the movie she turns up in a flight attendant's uniform, having suddenly secured a job with a Scandinavian airline. I haven't read the Callahan book on which this picture is based, but Annu seems more like an imaginary figment than a real character — no more flesh-and-blood than the mother Callahan never knew, who puts in a more spectral appearance at a later point. On the other hand, Annu is available for a little of that cripple-sex Callahan had been wondering about, so her existential status remains unresolved.
To his own surprise, Callahan's life blossoms when he discovers cartooning. He has limited use of one arm, so it's difficult; but his work has just the right abrasive attitude for Portland's alternative paper, the Willamette Week, which starts running it. (He was eventually syndicated in a reported 200 newspapers worldwide.) Actually, he's a little too abrasive, it turns out: Letters of complaint pour in whenever he finds humor in dwarves, lesbians, anorexia or Alzheimer's, among other touchy subjects. One of his cartoons depicts a black man panhandling in the street with a sign that reads "Please help me, I am blind and black, but not musical." (The movie's title derives from another Callahan cartoon, showing four mounted lawmen contemplating an empty wheelchair in the middle of the desert.)
It's unusual to encounter a picture that delves into the AA 12-step program — in which God is petitioned at every stage — with no hint of a disparaging Hollywood attitude. The movie is true to Callahan's commitment to the program, but Van Sant allows viewers to make their own spiritual judgments.
Beyond Jonah Hill and Jack Black (who has one terrific scene toward the end), the movie is mostly about Joaquin Phoenix, who carries the bulk of it while maintaining an illusion of effortlessness. As good as he almost always is, it's still a happy surprise to realize that he can frequently be even better than the last time you saw him. Here, confined to using facial expressions, head positioning and complex vocal modulations to create the character of John Callahan — and often to be funny while doing it — he's great again. As you might want to see for yourself.