Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot may not be the quickest title to read at the cinema ticket window, but it is one that may already be familiar to some audiences.
Based on the autobiography of the same name from controversial cartoonist John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a nice punnet of sardonic, black humour.
It stars Joaquin Phoenix in his most real-life biographical depiction since his flattering portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005). Once again, Phoenix clearly shows his broad-brush skill in character acting, brilliantly portraying the nerdy, paraplegic misanthrope. Like the moody Commodus in Gladiator (2000), Phoenix has long excelled at depicting bitter, selfish, tortured and emotionally crippled characters, and this may be my favourite role of his yet. This means something, because he has given some stellar performances throughout his career, in films like Her (2013) and Inherent Vice (2014). Not to mention his much anticipated upcoming role-playing the Joker, with recent teaser images that have gotten the internet in a frenzy.
Phoenix himself is a tortured character, like John Callahan, and one whose past has long played muse to his acting life. Plagued by the death of his brother River Phoenix as a youth, who killed himself by beating his head on the pavement outside the Viper Room club in Los Angeles, Joaquin has struggled in his brother’s shadow for decades. His characters are often insecure, trying to live up to otherworldly expectations of themselves.
John Callahan is no exception, and director Gus Van Sant also brings an interesting puzzle piece, having directed his young brother River in the iconic My Own Private Idaho (1991). This film is a slight diversion for Van Sant, whose hit-or-miss record is widely known, long part of the ‘New Queer Cinema movement’ with films like Milk (2008) having Sean Penn star as the famous gay activist Harvey Milk. Van Sant has bungled some universally acknowledged failures, such as the 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but is definitely back to form in this dark and charming drama/comedy.
I admit I didn’t know much about Callahan’s personal life coming into this movie. I’m always glad to see cinematic biographies of cartoonists or animators, being pretty rare in itself. My uncle was obsessed with Gary Larson for decades, and I remember as kids receiving a ‘Far Side’ book every year for Christmas as a gift, without fail. One year though, I recall receiving a book of strange cartoons by one John Callahan, and my naive child brain could only wonder “Who is this guy? Some Gary Larson rip off?”.
Now, of course, I can appreciate the uniqueness of Callahan’s wit and art, seeing more likeness in him to brilliant New York Times cartoonists the likes of William Steig, James Thurber and, stylistically, Richard Condie. But this film really helped me appreciate Callahan’s acerbic wit better, as the film is littered with his most highly inappropriate and hilarious cartoons, like the one below:
It also filled out his tragic life and back story, much of which was unfamiliar to me as well.
Callahan became a quadriplegic in an auto accident at age 21. The accident happened in Callahan’s car after a day of drinking; his car was being driven a man named Dexter, with whom he was bar-hopping, played quite humorously here by Jack Black, who is far less annoying than he often is in other films.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot depicts Callahan’s tragic decline into alcoholism and mental collapse, then slow revival. Following his accident, Callahan became a cartoonist, drawing by clutching a pen between both hands, having regained partial use of his upper body.
John slowly re-ignites his passion for life and art, after joining an Alcoholics Anonymous support group and meeting the beautiful nurse Anu in hospital (played by Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix’s real-life partner).
The support group meetings provide some of the most brilliant acting performances and centralised comedic heart of the film. Top of the bill of the quirky and eccentric group is Jonah Hill, having shed the pounds for his more serious role in Netflix’s Maniac. It’s a long way from the fat-kid comedian of Superbad (2007) we’ve come to know and love.
Hill plays Donnie, the kooky head of the quasi-spiritual AA group, a rich gay iconic Van Sant character, whose bizarre advice often is as simple as ‘drink more water’. In curing John Callahan’s demons, Donnie evokes the healing power of ‘Chucky’, from the Child’s Play movies as surrogate Jesus.
The other characters in the therapy group are all pretty hilarious, including Beth Ditto as Reba, who mocks Callahan for being a wimp, and trumping his paraplegia with her own heart cancer. Kim Gordon plays the ranting and wacky divorced Corky and the rest of the group all provide many funny anecdotes also.
There are many interesting themes explored in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. It seems very relevant in the constantly resurfacing debate surrounding censorship. Whilst I have never found the works of artists like Bill Leek remotely funny, I still find myself defending free speech in these frequently recurring media cases. This film explains the glory of freedom of expression in a much better way than I have usually managed during these conversations.
Callahan’s cartoons dealt with subjects often considered taboo, including disabilities and disease. Callahan scoffed at the reactions of critics who labelled his work politically incorrect, while he delighted in the positive reactions he received from fans with disabilities. His work, although full of critique of just about every group of society, were inarguably hilarious and rightfully put sensitive ‘wowsers’ in their place.
There are many subtle laughs throughout the movie and some slow-burning emotional moments. But it is Phoenix’s performance that pulls the whole thing together, personifying this uncomfortable, intrinsically funny eccentric. Even the way the shots of Callahan wizzing around in his electric wheelchair are filmed, attempting to reach a distant bottle of booze on a far shelf with his quivering quiff of ridiculously orange hair. They are simply hilarious. Riding up kids’ skate ramps and falling laughably over. There is a joyous streak in this movie which is somehow extremely uplifting.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is, in all, a dark comedy, which will have you chuckling with guilty pleasure more than once.
Director Gus Van Sant originally planned to make this movie in the 1990s, with Robin Williams starring as John Callahan.