Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot stars Joaquin Phoenix in the true life story of cult cartoon artist John Callahan. John Callahan achieved cult fame in the 1980’s for his darkly humorous take on touchy subjects like gender, race and most often, being handicapped. Callahan was in a car accident which left him almost complete paralyzed from the neck down. He eventually regained some of use of his arms and hands, enough to allow him to draw in a unique style, similar to the cartoons some might recognize from Playboy Magazine.
Interestingly, John Callahan was rejected by Playboy for being too extreme; he was however, published in Playboy’s edgier rival Penthouse Magazine. Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a title that indicates Callahan’s irreverence. The single panel cartoon depicts a posse mid-chase stopped in the desert behind an empty wheelchair with the caption quote “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”
We meet John Callahan through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards that can be highly confusing if you aren’t paying attention. We begin with John being thrown from his wheelchair after striking something on a sidewalk while traveling at a high rate of speed for a wheelchair. He’s helped back to his chair by a group of kids who see his drawings and ask him about his inspiration. We then flashback and flashback again and we are in an AA meeting.
Eventually, we find that John was an alcoholic dating back to his early teenage years as an orphan; he was surrendered by his mother at birth. John was set for a life of partying everyday and barely holding down a job when one of his binges nearly gets him killed. In a car, very drunk, with a new drinking buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), who is also very drunk and driving, John is in an accident and thrown from the vehicle.
It’s the late-1970’s and medical technology is primitive compared to today and we watch as John is put through a hellish looking recovery. His only solace is a woman named Annu (Rooney Mara) who works as a therapist and visits John weekly during his recovery. John eventually receives a motorized wheelchair and sets about going back to drinking almost immediately. It takes a few months or a year before he finally decides to seek help.
In a scene that shocked me with how strange and beautiful it is, we watch as John, desperate for another drink but left home alone without his caretaker, has a conversation with his absent mother. Actress Mirielle Enos appears as the ghostly visage of what John imagines his mother looks like and the two have an emotional, if only imagined conversation. It’s a flight of fancy to be sure but I found the scene as deeply moving as it is out of place in this otherwise straightforward biopic. The scene is John's catalyst to quit drinking.
The acting in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is superb with Joaquin Phoenix delivering the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from one of the finest actors on the planet today. Phoenix may be cantankerous, strange, even off-putting in publicity settings, he famously melted down on David Letterman then claimed it was all a stunt for his documentary art project, but his acting has always been of the highest level and he’s incredible here.
Phoenix is matched in his supporting cast, especially by Jonah Hill who transforms more than ever in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Hidden behind a fuzzy beard, a long blonde wig and significant weight loss, you might find it hard to recognize the star of Superbad and Get Him to the Greek but it’s him. Hill’s turn from comic actor to serious thespian has been a delight to watch for those of us who’ve always noted just how hard comedy acting is and how people like Jonah Hill don’t get their due respect.
Hill is heartbreaking in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. His character beautifully walks a tightrope of being sensitive and caring and brutally blunt. Hill’s Donnie is John’s AA sponsor, as well as the leader of a small group of people that he is sponsor to, whom he calls his ‘Piglets.’ The conversations during the AA meeting are at times humorous but most of the time they are raw and lacerating. These are powerful scenes, exceptionally orchestrated by Hill’s performance and by Gus Van Sant’s direction.
The film is not perfect, some of the R-Rated aspects of the movie are a tad forced or clumsy. The frankness of the characters can be funny but it can also feel pushy and awkward, such as the character of a nurse tasked with helping John understand sex as a quadriplegic. There is a problematic quality to this series of scenes that, though they appear honest and in your face, they are far from comfortable in that space.
Then there are the female characters in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Three exceptional women play standout roles in the movie but none of their roles feel fleshed out. It’s a long time criticism of Gus Van Sant that he doesn’t direct women well and this film highlights that flaw. Kim Gordon, from the band Sonic Youth, plays one of John’s fellow AA attendees and is given only one moment where she delivers a rather tossed off monologue.
Carrie Brownstein, the exceptionally funny sketch comedy veteran and star of Portlandia, gets short shrifted as a shrewish officiant constantly on John’s case and threatening to cut off his disability benefits. Then there is Rooney Mara, essentially the female lead in the movie. Van Sant botches her introduction as he introduces her as an ethereal ghost, a male fantasy of a benevolent beauty built to take pity on our ostensible hero.
I was surprised that Mara’s Annu didn’t wind up being a figment of John’s imagination as she is depicted as a saint who is ready to take care of his every need, shares his dark sense of humor, and though he is not the most charming guy, falls into bed with him as if he were the most handsome and charismatic guy alive. The character has seemingly no inner life that doesn’t involve catering to John’s needs and thus she never feels like the real person we’re intended to believe she is.
That’s is a significant flaw in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot but it doesn’t sink the film entirely. Too much of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is too good for me to dismiss the film. Phoenix is a rare talent, an authentic, raw performer who slithers into the skin of his characters in a way that only the great actors do. With this performance and his performance as a hitman in Lynne Ramsey’s exceptional You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix has authored two of the best performances of 2018.
That combined with Jonah Hill’s remarkable, transformative performance, forces me to recommend Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot despite my reservations regarding the female characters and a rather confusing flashback structure that many will find hard to follow. I was taking notes and I still struggled with where in time the characters were from time to time during this movie. That said, the movie is rewarding in big moments with big emotion that make all of the other more trying aspect worth the struggle.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is available now on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand.