DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT
director Gus Van Sant cast Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black
PLOT The true story of John Callahan (Phoenix), whose life spirals downwards when, at the age of 21, he is left quadriplegic after a serious car crash. But with encouragement from his AA sponsor (Hill) and girlfriend (Mara), he forges a new career as an edgy, irreverent cartoonist. GUS VAN SANT has made a career out of idiosyncratic, unconventional figures, whether fictional (Will Hunting, William Forrester), factual (Harvey Milk), or a mix of the two, such as the Cobain-esque musician of Last Days. And so it continues with cantankerous cartoonist John Callahan, the protagonist of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. With his unkempt thatch of dyed copper hair, outspoken attitude, politically incorrect sense of humour, and a mood that swings between impotent rage and unapologetic self-pity, Callahan provides the director with his best subject in years, while also giving Joaquin Phoenix his most enticing role in a career liberally littered with memorable performances.
But then, Callahan was a fascinating character in reality, too. In one of his most famous cartoons, a wheelchair lies overturned in the desert, while one of the members of the posse pursuing its absent occupant says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” Few knew that Callahan himself was a quadriplegic, whose best work often involved making light of his own disability — as when a doctor informs a stricken patient, “Let me put it this way — don’t buy any hacky-sack balls.” Matt Groening and Garry Larson were among his biggest admirers (Callahan died in 2010), and now Gus Van Sant makes his own affection apparent with this adaptation of his 1989 autobiography.
Not that he takes a straightforward approach. Presented out of chronology, Don’t Worry zips back and forth between key moments in Callahan’s life, from his carefree days as a womanising barfly, through the horrific 1972 car accident that left him paralysed from the chest down, and on into the years of mental and physical rehabilitation, and — much later — his recovery from alcoholism. Like its warts-and-all source material, the film is startlingly frank about issues such as addiction, abuse and quadriplegic sex. Less confidently, it also touches on Callahan’s search for his birth mother.
Jonah Hill — sporting a ’70s-appropriate long hair and beard combo — will give the Academy pause as Callahan’s softly spoken, no-nonsense AA sponsor, who is secretly facing an existential crisis of his own. Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon are memorable in minor roles, while Jack Black is startlingly good as the drinking buddy who was driving Callahan at the time of the accident. Of the cast, only Rooney Mara seems ill-served by an underwritten role as Callahan’s girlfriend, Annu.
But it’s Phoenix’s film. And having directed Robin Williams to an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, and doing the same for Sean Penn in Milk, Van Sant once again proves his gift for drawing terrific performances from his actors. In a more conventional film, Phoenix would be a Best Actor favourite. DAVID HUGHES
Verdict Van Sant never strays far from the man-overcomes-disability genre, but this is more than made up for by some impressive directorial flourishes and an engaging central performance.
Joaquin Phoenix’s John faces huge obstacles.