starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Kathy Driscoll-Mohler
screenplay by Gus Van Sant, based on the book by John Callahan
directed by Gus Van Sant
by Angelo Muredda "I'm a sucker for quadriplegic movies," VARIETY critic Peter Debruge wrote of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot from Sundance, before criticism from disabled activists apparently inspired his editors to do some quiet and uncredited post-publication editing. Whatever its merits as a biopic of an outsider artist--dubious, given the cuddliness offensive of Danny Elfman's insistent score--or a "quadriplegic movie" (minimal, given that its subject, Oregon cartoonist John Callahan, was actually a paraplegic), Van Sant's return to movies people might conceivably care about is at least not so homogenous and tired as that backhanded praise suggests. It's hard to shake the feeling that the film is the belated two-birds-with-one-stone fulfilment of a business deal with Callahan, who died in 2010, and Robin Williams, who first optioned the story and once intended to play Callahan himself. Despite the whiff of old Tupperware leftovers that hangs about it, the film is pleasantly rumpled in the tradition of Van Sant's more interesting work--predictably boring in its rehashing of disability clichés, from casting to writing, yes, but formally unusual, and committed to the repetitive and potentially un-cinematic bootstrap work of self-improvement and forgiveness that movies about addicts and accident survivors tend to sail through.
A filmmaker who has often veered between lived-in passion projects and anonymous heart-tuggers, Van Sant is flirting with both his devils and better angels with this material, which often becomes as schmaltzy as it sounds on paper but maintains a grain of specificity--chalk it up to the Portland milieu, or perhaps a deep, non-abstract familiarity with self-help and self-hatred--that's tough to dismiss. If the film often threatens to evaporate into a generic disability biopic when considered as a whole, it registers, when it does register, as a series of odd, indigestible moments. Though there is an enervating corniness to the way the film shorthands Callahan's ostensibly surprising vivaciousness in spite of his disability through phony uplifting follow shots that track Callahan as he zips around Portland a little too fast in his electric wheelchair, it settles into something immeasurably more interesting and real in one-to-one conversations like Callahan's attempt to make amends with Dexter years after the accident, a little one-act play about two struggling addicts trying to level with each other about the most painful moment in their respective lives. Consider, too, a sequence where Callahan, betrayed as he often is by a lazy and manipulative caregiver, works up the courage to call Donny for help, only to be rebuked for not first helping himself--a rare glimpse of the uselessness of guru doublespeak when you find yourself alone in your wheelchair in a space clearly not designed for you to access independently. That Callahan does reach some sort of epiphany in his moment of solitary contemplation is simultaneously the point of the scene and irrelevant to what makes it interesting: the starkness of Donny's refusal to sacrifice a vacation to help his friend weighing more heavily than any good advice he may have incidentally imparted.
Yet at times it feels like Van Sant has committed himself to orchestrating a series of vague parallel montages about an amiable yet somewhat opaque subject more than directing a cohesive film about him, as when he pulls out a series of lowlights from the early days of Callahan's recovery in the hospital. Van Sant again compresses time, framing each of these vignettes in a little box he drags from screen right to left. It is ambiguous whether this odd formal choice, which resembles both a film strip and pages from a comic book, is a reflection of how Callahan remembers these days--doubtful, given his own much more frontal and minimalist single-panel aesthetic in his comics--or is simply the only way Van Sant knows how to represent them, but the images of awkward bathing and physiotherapy are themselves too prosaic for it to matter much either way. One eventually grows weary of granting that there might be some larger design behind such seemingly dashed-off choices, and accepts that Van Sant is perhaps merely as lazy as he is intuitive.
Of course, prior to the film's release, the choice most people cared about was the decision to cast Phoenix in the first place. Despite the deserved criticism of filmmakers' ongoing inability (or refusal) to either abandon these projects or get them greenlit with disabled actors playing disabled characters, Van Sant is on less dodgy ground in his actual depiction of disability than he was in, say, Milk, where we know the titular gay rights activist is good to the common man because we see him advising a small-town queer teen wheelchair user who calls him in his hour of need to get himself wheeled out of his parents' suffocating home and onto a bus. That this scene is essentially replayed from the wheelchair user's perspective this time in Callahan's desperate phone call to Donny is probably just a coincidence. But you could generously read it as a long belated rewrite of this mean-spirited scene, which hinges on a wide-shot reveal of the teen's wheelchair that Milk can't possibly see on the other end of the phone--the punchline being that disability is some kind of closet within a closet, from which there's no getting out unless you have a few good friends with good strong hands to help you.
Whether by accident or through some self-searching of his own, then, Van Sant has obviously evolved here. The film is relatively frank in dealing with Callahan's sexual desires as a disabled man, though Phoenix and Mara are surprisingly inert together given their actual offscreen relationship. Moreover, his electric wheelchair, so often treated in movies as a kind of prison where wheelchair users tend to welcome it as a necessary and, unbeknownst to most outside of this world, hard-to-acquire mobility device, is depicted here as an avenue to freedom, as well as a natural dolly for Van Sant's camera to mimic. As ever, though, one wonders whether the film's sporadic delights and occasional shambling charm justify the increasingly tired and insidious trope that disabled activist and filmmaker Dominick Evans has termed "disabled mimicry." Wherever one's red line with these representational issues happens to lie--my own stance has typically been that these dubious business decisions are bred from dubious creative choices--there's little disputing that the rewards of this particular able-bodied disability biopic are so modest as to leave the question of why the project needs to exist at all lingering long after anything in the film.