Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his very best performances in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” That’s saying a lot considering that the 43-year-old’s body of work is utterly exemplary. From “To Die For” to “Gladiator” to “Walk the Line” to “The Master” to “Her”, he has played celebs and nobodies, good guys and villains, all with flair and distinction. His turn as quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan is another superb rendering, and Phoenix’s skills dominate this redemption story even when it racks up the clichés inherent in such narratives.
The movie’s title comes from the caption of one of Callahan’s most famous panel cartoons. In it, a cowboy leading a posse speaks that line as he observes an overturned wheelchair in the desert. A lot of that sardonic tone is evident throughout the rest of director Gus Van Sant’s film. His main character of John Callahan may be handicapped, and his situation wholly grim, but the protagonist keeps his acerbic sense of humor no matter how dire his situation. And Phoenix instills him with an impish sensibility, even when the script dwells on the pathos.
Being abandoned by his mother at birth and suffering through the pains of being adopted by a troubled family, Callahan grew up with an enormous chip on his shoulder. It led him to a drifter’s life, going from one low-end job to the next, all the time drinking away the pain.
By 21, he was a hopeless alcoholic, reckless, destructive and always in search of another party. The film doesn’t shy away from exposing all his flaws, and at times it’s difficult to like Callahan. Yet even when he’s belligerent and staggering drunk all over the place, the actor keeps us vested in him.
Callahan’s careless partying nature leads him to allow fellow drunk Dexter (Jack Black) to drive him home after a party one night, and it leads to an auto accident that leaves Callahan paralyzed from the chest down. (Dexter, on the other hand, walked away with just a few scratches.) The rest of the story concerns Callahan’s battle back from paralysis, as well as conquering alcoholism and all of his other demons. It’s tough material and at times it’s depressing to watch, even though Van Sant wisely eschews showing the collision, as well as some of the more graphic parts of Callahan’s recovery.
Van Sant wrote the script too, based on the story by Jack Gibson and William Andrew Eatmenwhich was taken from Callahan’s biography, and their focus is less on the paralysis and more on the alcoholism. Most of what’s harrowing here is Callahan’s very long and painful journey to sobriety. Miraculously, Callahan managed to regain partial use of his upper body, including his hands. Yet, even as he battled to regain control of his basic functions, he let his drinking curtail such progress.
The film showcases Callahan and his struggles, and it spends a lot of time with him in AA. Donnie, (a sly and cool Jonah Hill), the calm and authoritative leader of his AA chapter, tries to help and exhibits great patience with him, but Callahan is a pain, and nothing comes easy. In fact, the more time he spends with AA, the more it wears down the story. And it feels very familiar as there have been so many stories about alcoholism done before.
Another problem the film has are the numerous clichés it employs from other handicapped stories on film as well. Of course, Callahan attracts a saintly and gorgeous girlfriend (Rooney Mara, sweet in an underwritten part). He battles with those from the disability offices. And how many times do we have to see him fall out of his chair or pee himself? It’s very familiar terrain, things we’ve seen in dozens and dozens of films like this before, be it “Coming Home”, “The Sessions” or “The Theory of Everything.”