While watching Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” I wondered what John Callahan, the iconoclastic cartoonist whose life is depicted in it, would think of the whole thing. I sensed, from Callahan’s irascible personality as encapsulated by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, that he would have had some problems.
Much of the humor in Callahan’s abrasive cartoons, as the movie shows, was aimed at deflating tired stereotypes. So I wonder if Callahan would be irritated the depiction of Callahan’s struggles with alcoholism and quadriplegia are, for all of Phoenix’s acting skill, turned into tepid and familiar movie tropes.
But, then again, Van Sant and Callahan, both longtime residents of Portland, Ore., were friends, and Van Sant has had the idea of adapting Callahan’s memoir for decades — with, at one point, Robin Williams in the lead. So what do I know?
Van Sant introduces Callahan at three stages in his life. He’s giving similar confessional speeches in two venues: One, before a cheering audience in a lecture hall; the other, to a handful of friends in an Alcoholics Anonymous support group. The third stage is Callahan as a hard-drinking 20-year-old living in southern California, which is where the story really starts.
Van Sant shows the young Callahan bouncing from party to party, drinking constantly. One night, at the age of 21, he goes on a massive bar-hopping bender with a guy named Dexter (Jack Black), which ends in a car crash that severs Callahan’s spinal cord. He wakes up in a hospital, unable to walk and barely able to move his arms. His only solace is Annu (Rooney Mara), a cheery and beautiful hospital volunteer from Sweden.
Still, he finds ways to keep drinking, until he finally enters an AA meeting. He befriends the charismatic Donnie (Jonah Hill), a rich gay man who becomes Callahan’s sponsor. Donnie welcomes Callahan into his collection of “piglets,” a support group with a wide variety of personalities — played by such familiar faces as rockers Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto, and the German actor Udo Kier.
It’s in Callahan’s interactions with Donnie, who quotes Lao-Tzu and calls his higher power “Chucky,” that Van Sant transcends the regular addiction drama to create something truly intriguing. Where so many movies about addiction show the first AA meeting as the end of the story, this movie depicts the 12 steps as a process rather than an epiphany.
Phoenix gives a solid performance, capturing the rage of Callahan’s alcoholism and self-loathing along with the mechanics of quadriplegic life. But the surprise here is Hill, whose portrayal of Callahan’s recovery guide is soulful, funny and touching.
Van Sant shows a bit of Callahan’s creative process, and some of his best-known cartoons (though he misses my favorite, the sign hanging on the door of a mental ward that reads “Do not disturb any further”). Callahan’s work was politically incorrect before that idea had a name — if he were still alive, one could imagine some Twitter trolls mounting a smear campaign against him — but it was also cathartic, for him and for readers. If only there was more of that in the movie about him.
‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’
Opened July 13 in select cities; opens July 27 in at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity, and alcohol abuse. Running time: 114 minutes.