With a round table of committed performances and suitably irreverent, yet sensitive tone, Gus Van Sant’s film succeeds in uplifting without regressing to inspirational cliché.
For those unfamiliar with John Callahan’s story, the facts might not immediately bring to mind the tone Van Sant has adopted to make this film. On the surface, comedic sensibility seems out of place in a narrative dealing with rampant alcoholism, quadriplegia, depression, and redemption. But, looking through the window Callahan’s cartoons provide into his personality, we find that Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is truthfully reflective of the type of person he actually was.
John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix in yet another chameleon performance) is a Portland party hound and all-around slacker. His functioning alcoholism is rapidly bursting the seams of containable proportion. When a car accident instantly changes his life one boozy, haze-filled night, effectively rendering him paralyzed, the drink takes an even larger role in his life as coping mechanism, consolation, and recreation. Callahan’s redemptive arc comes through the outlet of comedy—of drawing satirical, often offensive cartoons with what little mobility is left to his hands—and informs the darkly humorous tone in many parts of the film. What at first would appear tonally inappropriate is revealed to be the only honest way to tell Callahan’s story as the film unfolds.
A subtly directed film, it is entirely devoid of any imprint, flourish, or stamp of identification. Van Sant seems content to point the camera at the actors and let them do their thing, and with this cast, you can’t fault him one bit. Joaquin Phoenix sinks completely below the surface of Callahan in a complete physical transformation without the aid of makeup. He embraces the humor, the sensitivity, the anger, anguish, and despair, and projects them with a deceptive ease that belies his massive talent. Jonah Hill, as Callahan’s therapist, Donny, espouses his unconventional brand of spiritual/cognitive/self-reflexive therapy with a quiet confidence, a belief in the absolute rightness of his approach. He projects warmth with an undercurrent of pain, of rocky roads travelled on the way to wisdom. Both command the screen and our attention with comfortable ease and certainty.
The supporting players more than keep pace with Phoenix and Hill, given their chance with short vignettes at different moments in Callahan’s life. Rooney Mara brings a calm positivity to Callahan’s nurse and later flame, Annu. And Jack Black turns in a surprisingly affecting and emotionally charged performance as the boozy-turned-repentant Dexter, unable to move on with his life. I also want to recognize newcomer Tony Greenhand, who plays Callahan’s caretaker, Tim, vacillating between detached enablement and begrudging duty. If he’s acted before, IMDb doesn’t know about it, and, as first turns go, he impresses.
Though this is a redemptive story with an inspirational core, Van Sant avoids typical biopic clichés, skirting saccharine and sappy territory in favor of real human response. The sensitivity and humor treat viewers to a more poignant feeling, something akin to inspiration without manipulation. The feelings are genuine.
The only detractor is the fragmented nature of the film. Often playing like a collection of vignettes with jumps back and forth in time, it’s hard to keep track where Callahan is in his life at each point, and how each scene relates to the one that preceded it. We see Callahan the alcoholic, Callahan the cartoonist, Callahan the damaged soul in need of therapy, all one after another in a row. After a straightforward downward spiral, his redemptive rise is more muddled, edited in such a way as to see him progress and regress from scene to scene. This could be a purposeful intention. Healing the psyche is not a straightforward progress bar, and there will invariably be slides back down the slopes towards apathy and despair. This doesn’t change the fact that the film comes across as disjointed, its relationship to time elapsed unclear. As a result, it plays more like an anecdote, told years later in vaguely remembered sequence, rather than a crisp chronological story.
This is not enough to detract from the inherent watchability and power brought to the film by a stellar cast and quiet direction. The feelings it elicits play genuinely, and without coercion. John Callahan suffered a remarkable trial in his life, and his ultimate channeling of destructive tendencies into an outlet of creativity not only saved his life, but gave us an inspiring story to look up to in the form of a sensitively told and brilliantly acted film.