(director/writer: Gus Van Sant; screenwriter: William Andrew Eatman/Jack Gibson/Ronnie Adrian/John Callahan/based on a story by Callahan; cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt; editors: Van Sant, David Marks; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Jack Black (Dexter), Rooney Mara (Annu), Jonah Hill (Donnie), Joaquin Phoenix (John Callahan), Kim Gordon (Corky), Beth Ditto (Reba), Carrie Brownstein (Suzanne), Udo Kier (Hans), Tony Greenhand (Tim), Mark Webber (Mike), Ronnie Adrian (Martingale); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Steve Golin, Nicolas Lhermitte; Amazon Studios; 2018)

An uneven drama.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”/”Good Will Hunting“) co-writes and helms an uneven drama that’s deficient largely because of the team of screenwriters that include John Callahan, William Andrew Eatman, Jake Gibson and Ronnie Adrian, who leave us with too many dull scenes to go along with the occasional whopper.

The wobbly direction of Van Sant also leaves this as one of his middling works. The title was taken from one of Callahan’s blasphemous cartoons. The biopic, told in a series of flashbacks that veer back and forth in time, is based on the 1989 memoir by the Portland, Oregon, cartoonist John Callahan (dwelling in the same Portlant as Van Sant).

Joaquin Phoenix is terrific playing the paralyzed Callahan, as he tells his sad story starting when abandoned by his mother and raised as an orphan. The alcoholic started drinking at 13. When the party-going and skirt-chasing rebellious 21-year-old Callahan and his fast-talking drinking buddy friend Dexter (Jack Black) were both drunk while partying one night, they get into an accident driving to another party that leaves Callahan a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. While spending a long time recovering in the hospital, Callahan meets the sweet Swedish volunteer physical therapist Annu (Rooney Mara), someone he later on marries, and also the spunky wealthy gay AA sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill). Encouraged that he can still use his hands, Callahan expresses his rage in drawing insolent cartoons that are published.

From here-on the narrative follows the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous formula for sobriety, which takes us through the motions of the hero’s slow recovery that leaves the film at times not all that interesting. There are for my taste too many scenes of Callahan showing his zeal by speeding around Portland in his electric wheelchair. The German character actor Udo Kier and real-life rock stars Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) co-star in minor roles, in therapy sessions for former addicts.

Van Sant is an accomplished director, but is someone I can’t readily always accept. I seem to sometimes find things off-kilter in his work, especially of late. In this film things don’t always work despite a most able and willing ensemble cast (I especially was taken with the performance by the unrecognizable Hill). But, at least, Callahan was not cleaned-up for mainstream viewers and made saintly (usually the case in such alcoholic pics), but still was characterized as the selfish and fun-loving rowdy guy who found his mojo in expressing his satirical and self-mocking humor.Callahan died at 59 in 2010.