Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)

Directed by: Gus Van Sant | 113 minutes | biography, comedy | Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Tony Greenhand, Beth Ditto, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Kim Gordon, Udo Kier, Carrie Brownstein

Three cowboys on horseback stand in a desolate landscape in front of an empty wheelchair. “Don’t worry”, says the front man to his companions. “He won’t get far on foot”. It has now become a classic cartoon by John Callahan (1951-2010), the American cartoonist who was known for his melancholy humor and who also made fun of himself. Callahan had been in a wheelchair since he was 21 after being paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident. Because he had to hold his pen with great difficulty, his drawing style is coarse and ragged. The Dutch filmmaker Simone de Vries made a documentary about Callahan in 2005, entitled ‘Touch me where I can feel’. There were already plans for a feature film around the year 2000; Gus Van Sant was seriously interested in filming Callahan’s autobiography Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. He also already had an actor in mind to play the lead: Robin Williams. But the film did not get off the ground and Van Sant decided to put his plans on hold until 2016. Williams had died in the meantime, but in Joaquin Phoenix Van Sant found a more than worthy replacement.

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (2018) introduces us to Callahan shortly before his defining accident. He’s what you would call a slacker, a idler who spends his days fulfilling his pressing need for alcohol: Where can I get my next bottle, that’s where I’m going. On that fateful evening of July 22, 1972, he goes to all the parties with his drinking buddy Dexter (Jack Black). Drunk they get into the car; of course that can never end well. And it doesn’t, at least for John. Dexter drives his Volkswagen into a lamppost at 80mph and gets off with only a few scratches; John, on the other hand, becomes paralyzed for life. Van Sant creatively jumps through the different phases of Callahan’s life. Not only must he accept that he will never be able to walk again, he must also admit to himself that he has a drinking problem. In addition, he has to come to terms with himself and his past. Because he has been drinking since he was thirteen, of course there is a reason. John was given up as a newborn by his biological mother and did not have a good relationship with the family that took him in. His past haunts him like a ghost and in order to deal with it, he decides to seek help from the Alcoholics Anonymous and ‘sponsor’ Donny (fine role of an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill).

Alcoholism, a miserable childhood, severe disabilities; those are pretty heavy themes that pass in review in ‘Don’t Worry’. Fortunately, the film is far from depressing, thanks in large part to the pleasantly rebellious Phoenix in the role of Callahan; once he understands how his wheelchair works, he blasts through the streets at full speed. Phoenix is ​​on a roll; he swings back and forth between desperate guilt, self-pity and infectious zest for life. His black humor is what keeps him going and what ultimately gives him the strength to get on with his life. The game with time that Van Sant plays, making the most of his familiar realistic style of filming, drags us back and forth in the chaos of Callahan’s life. The cartoons he drew have been given a prominent role; they can be seen in animated form in the film. Callahan’s drawings symbolize the man he was: recalcitrant and a master of luring people out. But also when a child was as happy as one of his cartoons was placed in a newspaper or magazine.

‘Don’t Worry’ becomes more and more conventional in form and tone as the film progresses. The second half of the film focuses almost exclusively on Callahan’s resurrection through the AA’s famed twelve-step method, and we’ve seen that conquering seemingly impregnable hordes before, of course. It’s a good thing that ‘Don’t Worry’ is so convincingly acted. Because besides Phoenix, Jonah Hill is also on a roll, in a role that could easily have been caricatured. Because his character Donny may be quite exuberant ‘privately’, as a ‘sponsor’ of a group of (ex-) alcoholics – including Udo Kier and singer Beth Ditto – he is honest, straightforward and a rock in the surf. He also provides genuine emotions in his scenes with Phoenix, without it being too thick or too sweet. Phoenix also has an emotional moment with Black. It’s a pity that Rooney Mara, in the role of Callahan’s Swedish girlfriend Annu, barely comes out, but that is not due to the actress, but to the fact that the role is only sparsely developed.

Since ‘Milk’ (2008), which won two Oscars, Gus Van Sant had been searching for his form for a while. The moderately received ‘Restless’ (2011) and ‘Promised Land’ (2012) and the press-rejected ‘The Sea of ​​Trees’ from 2015 did not deliver what people had hoped for. With the biographical comedy drama ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’, Van Sant is back at his old level. Thanks to a more than convincing Joaquin Phoenix and a clever balance between (black) humor and personal drama, the remarkable life story of the unruly John Callahan comes to life in a compelling way.

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