Joaquin Phoenix’s wheelchair has surely been illegally tweaked for speed. Phoenix, in the role of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, blasts along happily with his hair blown back by the wind from one sidewalk to another. Cars left and right screech to a stop. Unsurprisingly, he completely derails, and is sprawled over the roadside when he overconfidently pops a curb.
Lying there on the roadside, Phoenix recreates edgy and taboo cartoonist John Callahan’s most famous cartoon – one in which an empty wheelchair lies in the desert surrounded by Sheriffs, assuring one another, ‘he won’t get far on foot.’ It’s a sorry state for Callahan, but it’s clear that director Gus Van Sant is making light of the misfortune, precisely because Callahan would have done so too.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot might have been a gritty biopic, were it not for its sense of humour. It is based loosely on Callahan’s own autobiography of the same name, and the adaptation was originally conceived by Van Sant’s good friend Robin Williams (oh, what might have been). We see Callahan’s own flavour of black humour used to navigate from alcoholism to disability and onto success. It makes it palatable, but not without its bleak discussions of shit-filled underwear.
It all begins with an AA meeting where Callahan sits in a circle of recovering alcoholics, glumly reflecting on their addictions. One member suggests ‘Maybe life isn’t meant to be as meaningful as we think it is,’ forging a fatalistic tone that hangs over the early narrative.
We set off with the fun-loving alcoholism of Callahan’s earlier years, and Phoenix seems to make a brief return to the indulgent excesses of Inherent Vice, complete with 9am tequilas. It all goes awry when he finds himself party hopping with a wasted drinking pal, played by Jack Black, and the result is a car crash that leaves him almost totally paralysed.
In a narrative that flicks back and forth in time, Callahan’s desperate alcohol dependence while adjusting to his disabilities and his eventual path to recovery along the 12 steps of AA. The former makes for some sad scenes that play on the film’s dark humour, for instance where Callahan desperately tries to drink wine without the use of his hands, and another where he tries to chew off the cork of a bottle. It’s a relief when he eventually pulls it together.
The AA process forms the lion’s share of the Van Sant’s drama, and proves his talent for getting the best out of his actors. Jonah Hill nails the part of AA-sponsor Donnie who sports an interesting mix of wealthy, wise and gay that we would never have expected from the days of Superbad’s Seth. Indeed, this is very much Jonah Hill 2.0, reminiscent of his sombre part in Netflix’s Maniac, and he’ll likely be Don’t Worry’s best bet for an Academy airing.
Donnie’s character is hinged on a dry matter-of-fact demeanour – best reflected when he forces Callahan’s greatest realisation, that his car accident and orphaned upbringing are no excuse for his self-pitying alcoholism. Van Sant paints AA as a harsh and dogmatic process, and it comes across as a deeply honest depiction.
From there, Danny Elfman’s soundtrack, Phoenix’s subtle but immersive acting and inter-spliced illustrations do a great job of charting the journey into sobriety and sketching. Some of the strongest scenes come from Callahan’s mission of forgiveness, which includes his drunken driver and his absent mother.
Despite some touching moments and fantastic acting from Phoenix and hill, Don’t Worry won’t be ‘one to beat’ for the Oscars. Which is a shame, as it really could have been. Putting a finger on what lets it down is tough. Perhaps one issue is an underdeveloped and largely pointless romantic subplot featuring Callahan’s physio love-interest Annu, played by Rooney Mara. She was seemingly overlooked when it came to a character or back-story.
Possibly more deflating though, is that Callahan’s famous sketches and style are given airtime, but we don’t get a front-row seat to the formation of his humour. In truth, he doesn’t come across as a funny guy, and perhaps that’s where the late great Robin Williams may have played it differently. Similarly, we don’t really see why sketching was his outlet, or really appreciate the long journey that (real) Callahan described in rehabilitation that let him hold a pen.
That would all be the icing on the cake, though. Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot deals with a cluster bomb of touchy subjects and manages to package them all in a way that is emotive, funny and never dull.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot is in UK cinemas now.