Originally earmarked as a part for the late Robin Williams, Joaquin Phoenix now takes the role of cartoonist John Callahan, an alcoholic who, after a car crash, became a paraplegic who goes through a tough rehabilitation to discover his true humour through drawing.
Directed by Good Will Hunting and To Die For film maker Gus van Sant, the film flashes back and forth between Callahan’s desperate drunk days, his time in the hospital and his spell in rehab groups, under the sponsorship of a flamboyant gay man called Donnie, excellently played by Jonah Hill.
At moments throughout, Callahan’s cartoons doodle across the screen, their acerbic punchlines delivered in voice over. Some of them are pretty funny.
Phoenix hurls himself into the part, as a lecherous drunk and as a reckless cripple in a wheelchair, speeding around pavements and occasionally coming a cropper. It’s a powerful performance, one of his most layered, as if always on the edge of cracking – and don’t worry, the emotional breakthroughs do come, in floods of self-pity.
And this is both the film’s success and downfall. It’s very in thrall to therapy and fuzziness, as if the outpouring of confessionals from people we know or care little about were per se dramatically interesting.
Still, Phoenix and Hill are always good to watch, and while small roles for Jack Black – as a very annoying drunk – and Rooney Mara – as an inexplicably kindly nurse and lover – do disappoint there are also cameos from singers Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon that intrigue and lend the film some layers of toughness amid a sentimentality that seems at odds with the lead character’s own dark-edged world view.