Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is carried largely on the heels of actor Joaquin Phoenix.
The new film from writer-director Gus Van Sant tells the story of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix). The way the film tells Callahan’s story is alright but it could certainly have been improved. One moment, we’ll see him addressing a huge crowd. The next minute, he’s walking or bedridden in a hospital. I wouldn’t have minded if it was a flashback every now and then but the film is bookended by those talks.
Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) has a way of introducing his mother. This serves as a running theme throughout the film. The film doesn’t up-and-get to how Callahan became a cartoonist. Van Sant’s screenplay takes its sweet time to get there. What we do know is that Callahan is in a wheelchair. We quickly learn that this wasn’t always the case. It comes down to bad decisions on Callahan’s part. The root of those bad decisions coming from alcohol. One starts to feel sorry for Callahan because he wasn’t behind the wheel. No, that was Dexter (Jack Black). Regardless, neither of them were in a position to be driving.
There’s a lot of time spent on the last day that Callahan walked. It was an awful day to say the least. What follows is a substantial amount of time spent on his recovery, not just from the car crash but from an addiction to alcohol. It’s while recovering at the hospital where Callahan meets future girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara). Through the 12-step recovery group run by Donnie (Jonah Hill) that Callahan learns to make amends. It’s through the recovery process that Callahan decides to draw cartoon sketches. His cartoons, while controversial, led to a climb in popularity.
While the film shows the powerful effects of an alcohol addiction, it also shows how important art can be in one’s life. A particular art form is what gives someone the will to keep on living when they don’t have anything else. John Callahan lost the ability to use his legs. He could have just given up on his life but he didn’t. It took some help from the likes of Annu and Donnie, among others in his support circle.
Based on the book by John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot nearly starred Robin Williams. The comedian had optioned the 1989 memoir some 20 years ago for Van Sant to develop and direct. While Phoenix does a marvelous job as the cartoonist, it’s likely that Williams’ take would be different but also an homage to Christopher Reeve. Williams gets recognized during the credits for his contribution.
Watching the film led me to examine my own privilege has someone who is able-bodied. There was a moment in the film where Callahan struggles to open a bottle of wine. It fell on the floor and I may have been the only person in the screening that laughed. I immediately regretted the laughter.
While Callahan adapts to living in a wheelchair, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is less about his disability than it is overcoming an alcohol addiction.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Gus Van Sant
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Rooney Mara, Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon