“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”
Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is a dramatization of the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix). The film focuses on the work of recovery, and Callahan’s unending journey to be real with himself. It takes a while but Callahan understands that only when he is real to himself can he begin to live for other people.
Van Sant tries to tell Callahan’s story in having it as many ways as possible and begins at the end by introducing Callahan as he addresses a packed lecture hall and speaking from a position of fame and comfort. We learn that a wild night out with a newfound pal, Dexter (Jack Black), ended with Callahan’s Volkswagen Beetle slamming into a telephone pole at full speed and crippling him below the chest for life. When he realizes that he is unable to pour himself a drink after his helper has left him alone at home, he decides to get in touch with an Alcoholics Anonymous group leader, Donnie (Jonah Hill), who becomes his personal guru.
As Callahan comes into his own as a cartoonist, Van Sant intersperses lightly animated versions of the real-life artist’s politically incorrect, single-panel comics into the film. You don’t have to know anything about John Callahan before going to see this movie since it is all here. It might even be an advantage not to be a Callahan fan going and that way you will be fully immersed in Joaquin Phoenix’s excellent interpretation.
Van Sant uses this animated work to give a sense of the take-no-prisoners satire for which Callahan was famous. There is a joie de vivre with the way Callahan uses his wheelchair. He gives people rides and zooms around town in it. The crux of the film is Callahan’s long-standing fight with alcoholism and his ultimate embrace of the 12-step program. Those in his AA group and Donnie, his sponsor have no time for Callahan’s self-pity. Donnie becomes the equivalent of Callahan’s own personal Jesus whose revelations are every bit as interesting as those of Callahan. Annu (Rooney Mara) is Callahan’s therapist/girlfriend Annu is dropped in the story with virtually no introduction and left to flounder and that is unfortunate. ,
The film is fascinating even though Phoenix seems fundamentally miscast and/or barely interested in making Callahan a believable or likeable guy. This is a film about coming to terms with the consequences of destructive lifestyle choices and addictions that don’t have easy resolutions. Callahan’s repeated reference to being abandoned by his mother and subsequently adopted is a hard fact and an easy excuse as sponsor and fellow alcoholic Donnie, a rich-kid tough-love Jesus lookalike, points out. Donnie’s guidance treads a fine line between accidentally insightful wisdom and surprisingly blunt remonstrations. Callahan doesn’t just drink because of what’s happened to him, he also does things because he drinks.