Another offbeat biopic comedy by Gus Van Sant (Milk, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting) and the second time he’s worked with Joaquin Phoenix since 1995’s To Die For. Van Sant has a fondness for oddballs and lowlifes, and this film more than compensates for the tedious environmental drama Promised Land (2012).
Phoenix plays John Callahan in a true story about a fairly unlikable and hopeless beachbum who is paralyzed one night in a car accident after a heavy binge. Bored and lonely, he entertains himself by drawing cartoons which people seem to like despite their sometimes offensive humour. After submitting to newspapers he achieves success and soon finds a purpose in life, but not before confronting his personal demons and alcoholism.
This is the type of part you’d expect Phoenix to play since he’s already played similar troubled and dubious characters in The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014) and You Were Never Really Here (2017), to the point where he almost feels typecast. Except this is the Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra version if you could possibly imagine a film where people seem attracted to Phoenix’s manic, often juvenile and sometimes abusive, screen persona. Although I find his performances fascinating in a freakish and morbid way, and the films themselves to be challenging works of depth and vision, I wonder how many more parts like this Phoenix will choose.
Rooney Mara plays the angelic carer who falls in love with him, as does Jonah Hill playing his camp AA-guru, and who steals the film as the hippie Jesus impersonator. It’s a moving and inspiring film that suggests friendship and happiness can be found in unexpected places, rather than by pursuing goals and overcoming obstacles against the odds.