Empire (UK) - - ON. SCREEN -

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.

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