Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot Review
Based on cartoonist John Callahan’s memoir of the same name, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot at times threatens to veer into Hollywood tear-jerker territory but Gus Van Sant shows enough restraint to deliver a sincere recollection of his rocky journey into sobriety. Sometimes it takes a few hard lessons in life before changes are made that should’ve happened years ago, but becoming a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic as a result makes it seem as if God is making an example of you.
Callahan made no secret of the fact he was a raging alcoholic before a liquor-induced car accident left him mostly paralysed. That happened when he was only 21 but it eventually set him on the path towards becoming a successful satirical cartoonist known for his edgy humour. The title of the film gives an indication of the type of Gary Larson-esque drawings he would create, raising laughs from the most macabre of subjects.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan and is asked to give a different type of performance than we have come to expect over the years. There is less brooding intensity in the main, matched with lighter notes and the sort of charisma that continues to make him one of the most watchable actors working in film today. Van Sant remains a director almost everyone wants to work with and he surrounds Phoenix with a great supporting cast including the likes of Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black.
Callahan’s 12-step alcoholic recovery programme is used to reveal how he went from staggering around on two feet to re-inventing himself in a wheelchair. Van Sant moves between the past and present to show the sequence of events leading up to the accident and how Callahan pieced things together in its aftermath. He met fellow alcoholic Dexter (Jack Black) for the first time at a party before a long night of drinking ended with their VW wrapped around a lamppost. Dexter walked away with barely a scratch, but Callahan woke up in hospital to horrendous news.
Black’s appearance is brief but shows why he should turn his hand towards more dramatic roles and leave the zaniness behind. When Callahan meets him for the first time since the accident Black is sensational and brings a huge amount of empathy to a character barely given any screen time. In between, much of the film is spent watching Callahan struggle to adjust to his new reality and we aren't spared the uglier details of his recovery. The physicality of Phoenix’s performance is superb and he slowly evolves from a slightly pathetic drunk into an artist with purpose.
The therapy sessions Callahan took part in were central to him finding purpose once he was confined to a wheelchair. While far from sober when he joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group led by a young rich hippie called Donnie (Hill), it forces him to come to terms with his troubled childhood and the choices made in his adult life. Also in the group are Corky (Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), George (Udo Kier) and Reba (Beth Ditto) who are much further advanced in their rehabilitation and offer the type of no-bullshit support Callahan needs to dry himself out for good.
Eventually Callahan starts to carve out a career as a cartoonist, and we are taken through his creative process as he gains more confidence in his work. His non-PC style is not everyone's cup of tea but the static and animated panels we are shown provide genuine laughs. Rooney Mara occasionally pops up as Swedish stewardess Annu who begins a relationship with Callahan, although she fades into the background of the story. It all adds up to an affectionately told biography that doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel but keeps the emotional manipulation to a bare minimum thanks to a fantastic cast and an involving script.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot opens in select cinemas on October 26th.