Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot December 13, 2018
Gus Van Sant
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
n the summer of 1972, not long after he turned 21, John Callahan was in a near-fatal car accident. His companion, with whom he'd been bar-hopping all night, unwisely decided that it would be best to get to their next location by driving. A couple beats later, catastrophe struck: the driver fell asleep at the wheel, and hit a telephone pole at 90 miles per hour. Later, when Callahan woke up at the hospital, he found out that he was paralyzed. (Eventually, he'd
reclaim control of most of his upper body.)
To palliate his pain, he’d abuse alcohol, on which he already had a dependence. But then, in the 1980s, around the time he also started making an effort to get sober, Callahan began, as a pastime, to draw more frequently. This led to an appointment, in 1983, to work as Willamette Week’s chief cartoonist. The sketches, irreverent and reliably provocative, gave rise to Callahan becoming an either beloved or scoffed-at local celebrity; he became increasingly revered on a more national scale until his death in 2010, at the age of 59.
For his latest project, the Portland-adjacent filmmaker Gus Van Sant dramatizes Callahan’s story. He primarily works off the latter’s autobiography, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (1989), which was named after a caption that decorated one of Callahan’s cartoons. (In it, a nonplussed trio of horse-riding cowboys come across a vacated wheelchair while roaming around the desert. The surtitle is simply one of their musings.)
After the failure of his The Sea of Trees (2015), which was seen by few after getting chided at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie might be alluded to as a return to form for Van Sant. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot's charms are sometimes comparable to the winningly soft-hearted Good Will Hunting (1997), for instance, and its visual approach is proportional to the one found in the herky-jerky coming-of-age road movie My Own Private Idaho (1991). (Though to say that Van Sant has a certain “form” is generous: as noticed by the critic Anthony Lane, Van Sant’s career has streaked to and fro various styles so steadily that it has become almost impossible to predict what might be up his sleeve next.)
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot tracks Callahan’s life from the accident to the concluding years of his life. First, he is a lotus-eating goof with a substance-use problem; finally, he’s an almost-enlightened figure giving professional talks, comfortable in his career. At all stages, he is played by the fleecy Joaquin Phoenix, who, in lieu of being saddled with a terrible orange wig, gives an unruly but persuasively fervid performance. With a probable aim of complementing the discordance of Callahan’s life, the film unfurls achronologically: Technically, it begins at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where the quondam Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, playing an addict named Corky, says things like, “My story is not tragic, unless boring is tragic.”
Invoking this quote is not to suggest that Callahan’s story is comparatively boring or wholeheartedly tragic. But it is forthright to the point of deep-sixing compelling drama. About halfway through the movie, the feature has played the most tuneful of its dramatic notes, and must tootle — albeit never boringly — until it reaches the finish line. Because of the rather puckered drama of the story, Van Sant’s presentation, which says “be damned” to time and prefers a peregrinating style of camerawork that reminded me of early John Cassavetes, comes to look like a gloss meant to cover up a lack of oomph.
It is in large part saved, then, by its ensemble. Phoenix is superlative, but so are Jonah Hill, who plays the former’s droll, beatnik-looking A.A. sponsor, and Jack Black, who portrays the reckless-then-guilt-ridden person at the wheel at the time of the life-changing accident. (The effervescent Rooney Mara, as Callahan’s Swedish girlfriend, is sidelined in a role that doesn’t allow her to do much more than be supportive but hardline.) A walk-on by Carrie Brownstein, of Portlandia (2011-2018) and Sleater-Kinney fame, as well as ones from the aforementioned Gordon and the singer-songwriter Beth Ditto, serve as more than a slab of stunt-casting. As often as Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot works, though, it is conspicuous that all these garnishes are ways for Van Sant to make the oft-monochromatic narrative prettier. B-