Gus Van Sant’s latest project barely made a ripple at the box office during its brief theatrical release this summer, and that trend isn’t likely to change now that the film is available for home viewing. While arthouse dramas have fallen on hard times in our blockbuster-obsessed theatrical climate, there’s little chance this particular film would have made an impact even if Gus Van Sant had made it in the 1990s with his original choice for star, Robin Williams. That’s because the source material simply isn’t all that special or particularly moving. Although Van Sant’s film is made with impeccable craft and fine performances from his strong cast, there’s just not enough to set it apart from any number of bummer biopics.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as John Callahan, an alcoholic quadriplegic who garnered acclaim as a newspaper cartoonist in his post-accident years. The film largely tracks his chronological progression through the 12-step process of Alcoholics Anonymous, aside from a lengthy flashback to his wasted life before his accident. It’s there that he meets and spends his final walking night partying with Dexter (Jack Black), a fellow boozehound who drunkenly crashes their car into a lightpole, escaping with scratches while Callahan ends up in a wheelchair for life.
After his accident, he ends up in a support group headed by AIDS-afflicted Donny (Jonah Hill) that forces him to come to terms with his plight and how he got there. He also meets an almost angelic volunteer named Annu (Rooney Mara) at his rehab center, eventually entering into a romantic relationship with her. His cartooning career seems to happen by chance, as he had no apparent artistic ambitions before his accident and seems to use his wryly humorous and roughly drawn observations as a form of personal catharsis rather than any employment attempt. He’s not portrayed as a particularly likable person before or after the crash, making it even more difficult to care about his lengthy road to redemption. At nearly two hours, the film feels at least a half hour too long, and could have been better served by skipping his entire pre-accident life.
Bonus features are nearly non-existent, with only two brief and inconsequential behind-the-scenes segments totaling about ten minutes. The image quality is suitable precise on Blu-ray, although oddy exhibiting enough persistent graininess that it appears to have been shot on film, in opposition to its reportedly digital origins. The soundtrack is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, largely wasted on the dialogue-heavy project but occasionally handy for Danny Elfman’s sparse and unmemorable score. The Blu-ray does include a digital copy, but does not include a DVD.