Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Good biopic that hits a wall

Review: Gus Van Sant in better form in film about quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan

Film Title: Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Director: Gus Van Sant

Starring: oaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 114 min

Fri, Oct 26, 2018, 05:00

   

The title refers to a cartoon by the late John Callahan. A huddle of mounted cowboys peers at a wheelchair abandoned in the lonely desert. The leader of the posse remarks hopefully: “Don’t worry. He won’t get far on foot.”

It’s an abrasive joke that invites the audience to indulge in a little recreational cruelty. That’s how Callahan worked. He was rendered quadriplegic after a being driven into a wall by a drunk friend and he enjoyed tweaking prejudices and wallowing in bad taste. The responses of some contemporaneous readers here – offended, disgusted, dare one say “triggered”? – confirms that Callahan might have had a hard time in today’s climate. It’s an idea that deserves a little more exploration.

There is much that feels half finished in a film that carries little of Callahan’s bite. This is not the off-beam Gus Van Sant of Gerry or Elephant. It’s not quite the cosy Van Sant of Good Will Hunting either. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is pitched somewhere between the experimental and the easy-on-the-eye.

Without wishing to downplay the considerable hardships Callahan endured, Don’t Worry could have turned out as two Movies of the Week in the same package: one about disability and one about alcoholism. Van Sant’s canny casting lifts it above those levels.

Saddled with an inexplicably terrible orange wig, Joaquin Phoenix – as phlegmy and scrunch-eyed as ever – plays Callahan as a decent man rendered awkward by ancient neuroses. Jack Black plays with bravado and pathos as the buddy who offers him a lift on the fateful night. But it is Jonah Hill who really stands out. Dressed in bad clothes worn only during certain bits of the Carter and Reagan administrations, blond of wig and mane, the Hillster is touchingly odd as the millionaire who heads Callahan’s AA group.

Moving to a classy Danny Elfman score that alternates free bop with tinkled piano chords, the picture just about gets by on the sharp interplay between those characters. But it finds nowhere interesting to go after a busy first hour. It, nonetheless, remains Van Sant’s best film in a decade.

Opens October 26th