Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

 

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Beth Ditto, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus Van Sant

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The self-help biopic has its upsides; namely, the need to emphasize the hard road to recovery when it comes to addiction. However, the downsides are obvious; the anti-climatic life story, the major epiphany which frames the subject's change of heart, the life lessons laid out in monologues set to a generically uplifting score. Gus Van Sant's Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a dramatization of the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), contains both the standard clichés of the addict biopic as well as sympathy towards its flawed characters. It's a film unusually interested in the methodology of recovery and the need for self-love; using a splintered narrative in order to cover as many bases of Callahan's life as possible. The results are uneven yet moving.

From the outset, it's clear Callahan is an alcoholic, and by shifting around in time, Van Sant is able to explore the various means by which he eventually starts seeing this truth within himself. Interspersed with scenes of Callahan drinking alone or trying to hide his illness from others are moments of him addressing a lecture hall from his wheelchair-bound position. Eventually, we learn that a booze-drenched night joy riding with new buddy, Dexter (Jack Black, perfection in basically two scenes) climaxes with a horrific car crash into a telephone poll at high speed. While Dexter walks away with only a few scratches, Callahan is crippled for life below the chest. One would assume such a devastating turn of events would curb his drinking, but in many ways, this only deepens the dependency. It's only after his inability to reach a bottle of vodka on top of his fridge that he decides to reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically a group leader named Donnie (Jonah Hill, cast against type).

True to form, Van Sant seems more interested in group dynamics than overarching themes, and the scenes set inside A.A. are overflowing with humane observations and eccentric types. What the film lacks in narrative momentum it more than makes up for in observational humor and pathos; including Beth Ditto as an outspoken redneck and Kim Gordon bickering with Udo Kier like an old married couple. Hill provides a loose, bohemian vibe as the concerned father/guru of the group (which he affectionately calls "piglets"), and the scenes between him and Phoenix in which they casually chat about recovery are some of the film's sharpest. Less successful are Van Sant's decisions to include animated versions of Callahan's cartoons into the proceedings as he begins developing his artistic voice, and Danny Elfman's jaunty score is also a problem; crassly laid over nearly every scene in order to boost the story's inherent sentimentality.

Callahan eventually develops a relationship with a physical therapist, Anna (a doe-eyed Rooney Mara), but the film is less about her impact on his recovery process than in revealing the need for self-reflection and more importantly, self-forgiveness. In the end, Phoenix's coiled physicality gives way to a surprisingly unshowy performance; this is someone whose life has been destroyed by addiction, and the actor registers Callahan as so lost inside his own self-loathing that not even extreme physical impairment can alter his lifestyle choices. Even a sequence in which he sees a vision of his mother who long ago abandoned him plays sympathetically because of Phoenix's sincere commitment to the moment.

For his part, Van Sant hop-scotches all over the place--sometimes confusingly, sometimes cleverly--but the film's mosaic-like editing scheme feels emotionally true to the story of a man caught in a state of circular denial. Sometimes, all we have is a communal space in which to defend ourselves or lay our fears bare, and for all its flaws, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot understands that sober platitudes come with a heavy cost.