We’ve seen a lot of different iterations of Gus Van Sant movies over the years, from fun schlock (Finding Forrester) to awardsy schlock (Good Will Hunting) to straightforward prestige films (Milk) to failed artistic exercises (Elephant). Now, just two years removed from arguably his greatest failure — Sea Of Trees, which barely got a release and currently sits at 11% recommended on Rotten Tomatoes — Van Sant returns to Sundance with one of his best.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot stars Joaquin Phoenix in a biopic, of sorts, about quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, jumping back and forth between Callahan’s early days as an alcoholic, his accident, his journey through AA’s 12 steps, and his discovering himself as a cartoonist. If nothing else, it makes a strong case that Gus Van Sant should only make period pieces. Set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it has such a rich texture that it’s compelling almost on the strength of the costumes and color palette alone. It’s one of those movies that even if it didn’t have a story would make a great coffee table book.
Likewise, Phoenix is one of those actors who can be entertaining irrespective of his function in the story. Callahan is right in Phoenix’s wheelhouse though — depressive, self-destructive, profane, mildly perverted, sorta mumbly, and occasionally able to experience the world as if he’s seeing it for the first time. Phoenix gets to play that a few times, wonderfully as always, during the course of Don’t Worry — waking up as a quadriplegic, finding love, discovering sobriety, and taking up art. With his expressive wolf eyes, asymmetrical face and body, and dead-on, heavy-tongued, drunk guy drawl, there’s really no one better at playing broken men groping towards enlightenment than Joaquin Phoenix. Callahan may be his ideal role (though it’s hard to say, because Phoenix has a way of making all his roles seem ideal).
Other characters include Rooney Mara as Callahan’s Swedish nurse-turned-girlfriend, Annu; Jonah Hill as Callahan’s flamboyantly gay sponsor and discussion leader, Donnie Green, who’s like a silk scarf-bedecked cross between Jesus and Barry Gibb, and who calls his higher power “Chucky”; and Jack Black in a small but memorable role that seems to draw on all of Black’s considerable strengths.
Hill soaks up the lion’s share of the supporting cast screen time, talking Callahan through all of the steps, checking Callahan when he gets out of line, and eventually facing a trial of his own. The focus on Green seems somewhat questionable (the promo image seem to prioritize Hill over even Phoenix) considering we learn all about Green, but almost nothing about Tim (Tony Greenhand), Callahan’s sometimes surly, apparently religious, but more or less loyal live-in nurse who stays with him throughout the movie and completes thankless tasks, like fetching Callahan’s booze and cleaning his dirty asshole. Likewise, Santina Muha (a real-life disabled person, I discovered through later Googling) shows up for a brief, fun cameo as the fun-loving Debbie. She’s thoroughly charming in a single scene and then never seen again. Donnie Green is fun though. It’s hard to find too much fault with keeping him onscreen.
The secret weapon of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is Callahan’s cartoons themselves. The title refers to the caption of one of them, a drawing of an Old West posse that’s come upon an abandoned wheelchair. Like a more sardonic Gary Larson drawn in a bug-eyed, Aardman Animation-esque style, Callahan’s cartoons got big laughs throughout the movie, whether depicting Klansmen relishing dryer-fresh sheets or visual puns on well-worn phrases. I wasn’t familiar with Callahan’s work before the film (kind of incredible considering I was a Gary Larson fanatic and my parents worked with the disabled and we had various other artworks by quadriplegic artists throughout the house), so it was a happy discovery. I imagine that for those more familiar, Don’t Worry would have that nostalgic, behind-the-music appeal of a musician biopic, the way it’s hard not to get goosebumps when Eazy-E nails the first lines of “Straight Outta Compton” in Straight Outta Compton, even when you know it’s coming, even though you’ve heard that song a thousand times. It’s easier to love the Callahan biopic if you love Callahan’s cartoons.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a straightforward biopic about an interesting guy, starring one of our best actors. It’s a story of adversity, self-discovery, and redemption. It’s not the kind of story we’ve never seen, but it’s a perfect showcase for Gus Van Sant’s skills — namely, shooting a beautiful, meticulously period appropriate scene and getting the best out of his well-chosen actors. He doesn’t take any huge chances, but he doesn’t need to. Doing right by the specifics of Callahan’s story keep it from feeling too hackneyed. As with casting, simply choosing the right subject gets you most of the way there. Which is to say that Don’t Worry feels easy. It takes a good storyteller to make a movie feel easy.