Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot tells the story of John Callahan, an alcoholic and quadriplegic who turned his tragic life around to some extent and made it grist for a long-running series of cartoons in Portland’s Willamette Weekly newspaper. As portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, Callahan is no angel: a mostly remorseless drunk before his accident and even for a period afterwards, he fights his way through a mix of self-pity and anger (largely directed at his absent mother) that he never quite resolves but manages to make some peace with.
Van Sant brings his semi-experimental style to the film, giving us glimpses of Callahan along several parallel timelines, including his life on two legs before he lost their use in a car accident. Those scenes show Callahan as a dissolute wreck: doing some early morning drinking behind a dumpster, weaving his way toward an attractive woman on the beach to make unwelcome small talk, and finally going on an all-night bender with an equally hammered new friend Dexter (Jack Black) that ends in disaster.
Later scenes are mostly based around Callahan’s attendance at AA meetings in the home of Donnie (Jonah Hill), a wealthy, long-haired would-be mentor who refers to the attendees as “piglets” and offers up both nuggets of traditional 12-step wisdom and tough criticism. Among the members of the group are a housewife played by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, an Udo Kier-like older man played by… Udo Kier, an angry young man essayed by Mark Webber and an extroverted, buoyantly cheerful woman played by another musician, Beth Ditto. The scenes in the meetings are among the movie’s most colorful, as Van Sant and the cast present these characters in clear-eyed fashion with little faux sentiment.
While the film’s loose, improvisatory structure can feel circular at times, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot achieves sporadic greatness due to the aforementioned lack of sentimentality and the strong work done by its cast. Phoenix does his customary total immersion into his character, physically and emotionally, but Callahan is refreshingly expressive and, as he comes to terms with himself, amusingly self-deprecating.
Phoenix is remarkable, but the real revelations are Jonah Hill and Jack Black. Hill has shown plenty of flair as a serious actor in films like Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, but his work here is more subtle and nuanced, revealing layers of sadness and complexity underneath Donnie’s seemingly superficial surface. It may very well be Hill’s best work to date. Black, meanwhile, starts the movie in typically crazed mode but reappears later in a moving scene that is unlike anything he’s done before.
Sadly, Rooney Mara’s Swedish health-worker-turned-girlfriend-turned-flight-attendant, Annu, gets the least to do here. We find out very little about her, with both the character and her relationship to Callahan severely undercooked as Mara drifts sleepily in and out of the movie. While that could be a function of the plot focusing more on Callahan’s recovery than, say, his romantic life, having Annu along as essentially a helpful armpiece does neither the actress nor the real-life person any favors.
Callahan, who eventually achieved sobriety, died at the age of 59 in 2010 from illnesses related to his condition. The movie makes note of that but doesn’t go the conventional route of showing us Callahan’s death. The sharp focus on his recovery from alcoholism, Van Sant’s mostly successful attempts to rein in the sentimentality that this material could be weighed down with, and the movie’s odd structure itself (which also includes bringing a number of Callahan’s cartoons to life in short animated vignettes) keep it from turning into the standard biopic fodder that this could easily become.
The film’s occasional forays into more maudlin territory are often just as quickly corrected by the tools the film has had its disposal, including Phoenix and the provocative (and probably insensitive by today’s standards) work of Callahan himself. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot gets pretty far on those alone.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is out in theaters Friday, July 13.