In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Gus Van Sant attempts to turn what could be a maudlin story about addiction recovery into something as subversive as its source material: the life of fringe cartoonist John Callahan, who became a quadriplegic after getting in a drunken car accident.
It’s an admirable try: Rather than present the story as a predictable linear story about folly and recovery, Van Sant organizes the film thematically instead; we hear Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix, erratic and electric as a stripped wire) tell the same anecdote about his mother — who put him up for adoption — in multiple settings, to multiple audiences. The chaotic approach to timeline and tone (from slapstick to deadpan to surreal) mirrors the unpredictability of recovery: We see Callahan go to Alcoholics Anonymous, and then see a flashback of him drinking again, and it’s never entirely clear whether that indicates a relapse.
The film (whose title is taken from the captain of one of Callahan’s most famous cartoons: a posse of cowboys examining a turned wheelchair) is more a collection of moments strung together by recurring motifs, the most successful of which is the meetings at the home of Callahan’s sponsor, the wealthy, long-haired Donny (Jonah Hill), where Callahan tells his story among a group of Donny’s other “piglets’ (which include Kim Gordon, singer Beth Ditto, and a wonderfully wacky Udo Kier). But where Phoenix was allowed to fully develop his character, there isn’t much room for the audience to connect with or understand Donny, in spite of Hill’s herculean efforts. Brilliant performances are wasted on one-dimensional characters with dialogue that consists mainly of wheel-spinning conversations that seem to always come back to Callahan’s anger at his mother who left him.
The most egregious example is Rooney Mara, fully wasted as Annu, Callahan’s nurse in recovery who reappears later and becomes his girlfriend. A blonde fantasy — first in a sundress, bearing flowers, and then in a flight attendant uniform — it would be tempting to call Annu a manic pixie dream girl but she doesn’t even have traits, let alone quirks. (On second thought, I suppose endlessly patient, smiling, pretty, and sexually-willing do technically qualify as traits.)
As far as small characters go, Jack Black is unmatched as Callahan’s drinking buddy who was behind the wheel during the crash that paralyzed him, reappearing only once again, years later, when the 12 step program induces Callahan to apologize to the people in his life with whom he has unresolved feelings.
Although Van Sant uses humor to avoid the pitfalls of a schmaltzy Lifetime movie recovery story, he still seems afraid to confront Callahan as an artist, and a person, in any meaningful way. Addiction is a selfish act, but we never see Callahan’s cruelty, or de-sanitized versions of his anger. His cartoons were sometimes offensive, because maybe a man stuck in his own body wanted to poke the metaphorical societal bear.
One imagines the real John Callahan, who died in 2010, would have appreciated a film that wasn’t afraid to call him an a—hole. B-