'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Sweet sobriety.
5/11/2018

Joaquin Phoenix plays cartoonist John Callahan, who discovered his artistic calling after being permanently paralyzed at age 21 and getting sober, in Gus Van Sant's biopic.

Not since American Splendor explored the curmudgeonly everyman sensibility of comic-book artist Harvey Pekar has the complicated headspace of a cartoonist been entered with such infectious fondness as in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. A return for Gus Van Sant to the loose-limbed chronicles of outsider existences in Portland, Oregon, that first put him on the map, like Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, this unwieldy but consistently enjoyable portrait of quadriplegic local hero John Callahan is notable for its generosity of spirit and gentleness. For want of a better word, it's disarmingly chill.

In a terrific performance that encompasses countless attitudinal, emotional and physical shifts, Joaquin Phoenix eases into the lead role with equal parts raw pain, ironic humor and eventual mellow acceptance. And in some of his best scenes he's paired with Jonah Hill, who has rarely been more appealing than as John's unfailingly Zen AA sponsor Donnie, a rich, bearded gay dude with flaxen hippie hair, who's equally at home rocking a caftan as he is shaking his groove thing in scoop-sided '70s athletic shorts. His wardrobe alone is heaven, but the character and his idiosyncratically evolved philosophies are an all-round delight.

Marketing an alcoholic recovery story, particularly one where the initial arrival at rock bottom leaves the subject permanently paralyzed from the waist down, is a challenge. But Amazon Studios has no shortage of hooks for this funny-sad, sweet, lovingly made tribute to a unique personality. As much as Callahan's rocky ride, the movie is about the hard task of learning to have faith in yourself, which is one of the most universal themes there is.

The end credits carry a special acknowledgement to Robin Williams, who first brought the project to Van Sant some 20 years ago, after they did Good Will Hunting together. Originally intending to produce and play the lead, Williams had optioned the rights to Callahan's 1989 memoir, its title a droll, wheelchair-specific cartoon caption that perfectly encapsulates the off-kilter tone of the film. Van Sant worked unsuccessfully on drafts with various writers until development stalled, resuming only after the deaths of Callahan and Williams in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Taking solo script credit, Van Sant is working here in a deeply personal mode, showing clear evidence of extensive interviews with the cartoonist and decades of fandom of his work.

Shuffling the timeline throughout, and making clever use of devices like rolling split-screen horizontal and vertical wipes, Van Sant begins with a group AA meeting presided over by Donnie. One of his regular "piglets," Corky (Kim Gordon), makes the wry observation that maybe life's not supposed to be as meaningful as we think it is. And yet, whether by accident or design, first-time attendee John spends an elastic stretch of time stumbling toward some kind of understanding of himself and his demons, ultimately arriving at a public stage appearance in which he thanks the people who helped him get there. That potential platitude is illustrated by the final result of an amusing cartoon about Darwinian evolution that lingered for a long time in the "not ready" pile.

It's part of the movie's charm that those cathartic points are no less important than lighter moments, such as John careening through the streets and tumbling out of his wheelchair to be rescued by a gaggle of friendly skater teens; having his hospitalized traction agony interrupted by a visit from an angel, Swedish volunteer therapist Annu (Rooney Mara), with whom he reconnects later on when he's in a better place; or learning about the new frontiers of sex for the disabled.

The most harrowing episode is the auto accident that rendered him a quadriplegic. A hard drinker since age 13, John has been slacking around Los Angeles when he meets fellow wild-man boozer Dexter (Jack Black, sporting epic mutton chops) at a party. Describing himself as "the cunnilingus king of Orange County," Dexter promises a better quality of babe at another bash across town, so the pair proceed to get twice as hammered and then set out in a powder-blue VW bug. But Dexter, who's at the wheel, wraps the car around a lamppost, escaping with just a few scratches while John will never walk again and regain only very limited use of his hands.

Fast-forwarding through rehab, Van Sant jumps in and out of AA sessions while tracing John's second experience of hitting rock bottom, this time as a non-ambulatory drunk. Phoenix bites right into the pathetic anguish of wheeling around John's trashed apartment, taunted by an out-of-reach vodka stash on a high shelf and a bottle of wine that rolled under the sofa. A vision of the Irish-American mother who gave him up for adoption at birth (Mireille Enos in a lovely cameo) convinces him that the time to stop drinking has finally arrived.

For a movie running almost a full two hours, Don't Worry is light on conventional narrative. But familiar recovery episodes like seeking forgiveness; apologizing for wrongs; wrestling with weakness, shame and anger; or celebrating small victories all are handled with a freshness and compassionate insight that keep you watching. Among the most gorgeous scenes is a long-delayed reunion with the shame-faced and repentant Dexter, set to the counterintuitively jaunty strains of Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me." And the final, moving exchange between John and Donnie is just wonderful, played with exquisite warmth and realness by both actors.

There's also considerable pleasure in the unfussy documentary style with which Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt capture the cafes, parks, bookstores and streets of Portland, along with its culturally diverse residents. The sense of place is palpable.

Interwoven throughout is John's gradual realization that his fearless, often macabre and off-color sense of humor, his honesty and battle-scarred outlook on life made him eminently qualified to be a gag man, published first in the Portland State University press and then in the Willamette Week and beyond. Those simple felt-tip pen drawings with their absurdist captions found a devout following as well as frequently indignant readers calling for his dismissal. They provide ideal punctuation in an affecting movie that feels unmistakably like a labor of love.

 

Production companies: Iconoclast, Anonymous Content, in association with Big Indie Pictures
Distribution: Amazon Studios
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Udo Kier, Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, Mark Webber, Tony Greenhand

Director-screenwriter: Gus Van Sant, based on the book by John Callahan
Producers: Steve Golin, Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Nicolas Lhermitte
Executive producer: Brett J. Cranford
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Jahmin Assa
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Music: Danny Elfman
Editors: David Marks, Gus Van Sant
Casting: Kathy Driscoll, Francine Maisler
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Rated R, 113 minutes