Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a biopic about John Callahan, an alcoholic who was paralyzed after a car accident. Eventually, he decided to become sober and found some success as a satirical cartoonist. This adaptation, written and directed by Gus Van Sant (based on Callahan’s 1989 memoir of the same name), touches almost exclusively on his life post-accident, with an emphasis on his time in AA. It is a painful, occasionally powerful, story that drags too often and struggles to make its points. It is strange because, while I definitely appreciate a lot of what Van Sant, his cast and crew do here, the film never completely connected with me.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan in what had to be an emotionally taxing role. Generally speaking, Callahan is shown in one of two different ways: either desperately clinging to a bottle or baring his soul in an effort to change his life. Van Sant jumps around in Callahan’s narrative, but the furthest back he goes is to the day of the accident that put him in his wheelchair at the age of 21. So, for most of the film, Phoenix (who, at 43, looks a little too old for the part) needs to emote using mainly his facial expressions and his line delivery. Though Phoenix is quite good, Don’t Worry’s narrow focus made it difficult for me to see past the performance. Even while watching him attempt to come back from his lowest, I never felt like I really knew John Callahan.
That may be because the movie is about his alcoholism, as opposed to his life as a whole. A little time is given over to his art, but not nearly enough to understand where his talent or inspiration came from. This production does not see him as “John Callahan, Cartoonist,” it sees him as “John Callahan, Addict.” Even though that puts a severe limitation on the film’s scope, it does allow for some impassioned speeches from Phoenix and his costars.
Jonah Hill gives one of the best performances of his career as Donnie, an eccentric trust-fund kid who sponsors so many people in AA that he practically runs his own private chapter. Despite referring to his students as “piglets,” he truly cares for them. Callahan can be frustratingly self-centered, but Donnie patiently tries to coax him through the program. It is a complex role and Hill brings to it the right mixture of comedy and sincerity. Just as his character endeavors to keep John on track, Hill works to keep the audience entertained among the sometimes repetitive speechifying.
The supporting cast is pretty enjoyable, although, with few exceptions, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (110 minutes without the end credits) is Phoenix’s showcase. Hill gets several nice moments and Jack Black, as a man John meets on his way to the bottom, has a really strong scene, but everyone else suffers. Especially the women. The very talented Rooney Mara is totally wasted as Annu, a physical therapist who helps John during his recovery. Carrie Brownstein is not given any more opportunities than Mara as an exasperated welfare representative. Musician Beth Ditto fares the best as a fellow AA member who refuses to listen to John’s pity party. But mainly, the film watches Phoenix’s John as he tries to climb out of the deep hole alcoholism has put him in.
While I certainly respect the intentions here, Don’t Worry is a mixed bag. It has a couple of very good performances and a few effective sequences. Unfortunately, the way Van Sant chose to fracture the narrative softens the overall impact. He moves through time, showing various events in Callahan’s life in pieces, instead of all at once. There is much more to admire about this movie than there is to like. That is a shame because there is a lot to learn from John Callahan’s story. Individual scenes work, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
3 out of 5
Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan
Jonah Hill as Donnie
Rooney Mara as Annu
Jack Black as Dexter
Tony Greenhand as Tim
Beth Ditto as Reba
Carrie Brownstein as Suzanne
Screenplay and Directed by Gus Van Sant