Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
True-life tale of alcoholism and cartoons is unexpectedly uplifting
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot (2018)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara
During his long career, writer-director Gus Van Sant has veered from the edgy (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) to the sentimental (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to the experimental (Gerry, Elephant). His latest, however, is a disarmingly empathetic biopic that surprises with its sincerity and its down-to-earth charm.
Like fellow indie filmmaker David Lynch, who abandoned his trademark weirdness for 1999’s blessedly simplistic biography The Straight Story, Van Sant sheds most of his indie affectations for a film so compassionate that some more cynical audience members might be disappointed waiting for the punchline. The subject of Van Sant’s biopic is controversial cartoonist John Callahan, an unexpected—but, as it turns out, entirely fitting—subject for inspiration and uplift.
Callahan is played by Joaquin Phoenix (who appeared in Van Sant’s To Die For), an actor whose method-driven “commitment” to roles often leads him to either over or under act. But Van Sant’s instincts are on point here, forcing the actor to deliver a perfectly grounded performance that is neither too showy nor too mumbly. Though the film jumps around a bit in time, its narrative gets underway in the late-’70s as directionless Portland native John Callahan lives his life stumbling drunkenly from one bar to the next. After a night of party-hopping and drunk driving with fellow inebriate Dexter (Jack Black, in one of the film’s many unexpected cameos), he ends up paralyzed from the shoulders down. Already prone to self-loathing and depression, John sinks to a new low. It ain’t easy sneaking booze into a hospital when you’re paralyzed. Eventually he’s given an electric wheelchair and kicked to the curb, so to speak.
In time—and after many drunken shenanigans—John finds salvation in two outlets. The first is the more conventional: Alcoholics Anonymous. John starts attending meetings run by oddball sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill, in what is easily the most transformative role of his career). Rich, gay and several years sober, Donnie steers a group of foul-mouthed struggling alcoholics though Bill W.’s program with love and compassion. It is here that our protagonist finds his first true friends. You can be cynical all you want about Alcoholics Anonymous, its 12 steps and its “Higher Powers.” But Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot isn’t. Not even a little bit. AA is a program that works for certain people, and it worked for John Callahan. This film celebrates that fact. Call it sentimental or maudlin if you want, but the film has a sincere, therapeutic vibe that’s hard to dismiss.
The second of John’s life-saving outlets comes in the form of cartooning. An aspiring artist back in high school, the now quadriplegic John picks up a pen and starts sketching rude (in every sense of the word) one-panel cartoons—like Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” only far more politically incorrect. For John it’s a way to spill all the bile he built up over the years onto the page. His rough, shaky-line cartoons are filled with black, self-deprecating humor. (Several are brought to animated life here in all their wiggly-lined glory.) Despite the crude style and often taboo subject matter, John’s cartoons are soon being published everywhere, from Portland’s Willamette Week to Bob Guccionne Penthouse. (Full disclosure: Weekly Alibi printed Callhan’s cartoons for many years as well.)
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or earthshattering in Don’t Worry’s simple, “jerk makes peace with himself and his world” narrative. But the subject—an ill-tempered, dirty-minded, sloppy drunk in a wheelchair—makes for an unusual source of inspiration. And yet, he is. It’s as if Harvey Pekar from American Splendor stumbled into a feel-good Christian dramedy made by a bunch of misanthropic agnostics. Admittedly, the film spins in circles at times, going back and forth throughout the years to chart Callahan’s personal growth. The outcome, which we’ve seen from the beginning, is never in doubt. That the film maintains audience attention and sympathy to the end is due in large part to Phoenix, who navigates the film’s many physical and emotional highs and lows with honesty, buoyancy and charisma. Much of his time is spent locked in conversation with the uncharacteristically laid-back Hill (blonde, trim and acting his ass off, frankly). Although there’s a certain repetitive nature to these conversations, it’s indicative of the try-fail-try-again nature of recovery. This dynamic duo is backed by a curious but curiously welcome collection of actors, musicians, comedians, etc. (including Rooney Mara, Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein), all of whom add to the overall flavor of this offbeat comedy-drama.
Like its main character, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot has its flaws. But shed a layer of snark and you might just find yourself laughing, cringing and cheering on the sort of unabashed emotional flood normally reserved for underdog sports movies.