Art and Film: John Callahan’s Higher Power

Joaquin Phoenix as cartoonist Jim Callahan

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Growing up in Portland, Oregon, John Callahan, who would become a cartoonist noted for his dark, warped humor, had been a promising art student. But his abandonment by his birth mother and the coldness of his adoptive family haunted him. He started drinking at 13, and by his early twenties, working as a house painter, he needed the hair of the dog every morning to stave off the DTs. One wasted night, he bonded with another crazed drunk who drove them into a lamppost at 90 miles per hour. Callahan emerged a quadriplegic. With his signature grungy, streetwise passion, Gus Van Sant, in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on his eponymous 1989 memoir and titled from a Callahan cartoon caption, shows how Callahan tailored the ostensibly evangelical twelve-step doctrine of Alcoholics Anonymous to his own irreverent secularism.

Joaquin Phoenix brings his patented combination of introspection and rawness to the role of Callahan. He gets support from several generous, damaged addicts at AA – a disaffected housewife (Kim Gordon), a tortured veteran (Mark Webber), a wise fat girl (Beth Ditto) – and from a prim social worker (Carrie Brownstein) and even the loquacious drunk driver who put him in the wheelchair (Jack Black), all impeccably played. Inadvisably, Van Sant also includes a saintly Swedish physical therapist and flight attendant – an angelic Rooney Mara – for inspirational romantic and sexual relief. If this is a forgivable indulgence, it’s mainly due to an unrecognizably slim and bearded Jonah Hill’s edgy portrayal of Donnie Green, the AA group leader and Callahan’s sponsor– a trust-fund gay scold who tames his mumbling rage. When Callahan gets hung up on the guileless piety of the Higher Power thing, Green peevishly brings the notion down to earth by noting that he himself is far from blessed or beatific – among other things, he lives “stupidly” off inherited money – and recasts it as a symbol of the addict’s need for some source of positive distinction in order to stay sober.

Jonah Hill plays Callahan’s AA sponsor.

Callahan’s Higher Power turns out to be art. For much of the movie, in fact, Van Sant has Callahan’s cartoons, interspersed throughout, do an inordinate amount of narrative lifting. They certify that he is both funny and polarizing, but his off-color humor isn’t terribly evident in his depicted behavior, which defaults to anguish and the tenuous self-control reflected in his reckless wheelchair driving.

Callahan’s cartoon

Towards the end of the film, though, the person and the art converge, yielding greater sophistication. Maybe that’s part of the point. Initially Callahan craves mainly the outrage his work precipitates, whereas later he shows a calmer interest in a range of nuanced reactions – for instance, to a cartoon of his published in Penthouse suggesting to one petulant reader merely that lesbians are bitchy, to another more appreciative one that men fear them because they have no need for men. By the final scene, Callahan, having wiped out in his chair and dislodged his catheter, is nevertheless a happy man, consorting with teenagers on skateboards who sense they might learn a thing or two about life from this strange, cool dude. It’s still mostly about him, but perhaps that’s the true cost of sobriety – and art.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, directed by Gus Van Sant, distributed by Amazon Studios.

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