I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of American indie icon and film director Gus Van Sant’s newest film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Van Sant brings the real-life story of John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) to the big screen. Callahan, the late cartoonist whose early battle with alcohol addiction eventually led to a drunk driving incident that would leave him in near full-body paralysis and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, would use the limited mobility of his arms to go on to find catharsis in drawing cartoons – single panel comics whose humor would come from illustrating the often wincingly dark absurdities of life. Van Sant mixes Callahan’s humor with a painfully honest journey to make a beautiful portrait of how one finds solace in the face of tragedy, giving credence to the old saying that tragedy is just comedy plus time.
Van Sant, who wrote the screenplay of the film as well, gives Callahan’s story an impressionistic wash, intercutting wheelchair Callahan’s present-day wheelchair-confinement with the earlier chapters of his life through flashback form. We see a younger Callahan guzzling booze straight from the bottle, moments of the drunk driving incident with friend and enabler Dexter (Jack Black), his physical therapy exercises with would-be lover Annu (Rooney Mara), as well as the story of Callahan entering a support group for his alcohol addiction. The re-occurring support group scenes prove to be the emotional core of the movie and lift the movie from standard bio-pic to a character study in therapeutic discovery and healing.
Joaquin Phoenix once again proves a mastery in being able to shape-shift into and humanize the oddball characters that he inhabits.
Bringing Callahan to the big screen in fearless form is Joaquin Phoenix, who once again proves a mastery in being able to shape-shift into and humanize the oddball characters that he inhabits. Phoenix as the irreverent Callahan plays both sides of the aisle in a character whose devil-may-care benders evoke those of Hunter S. Thompson’s. He’s silly and funny, evoking his hippie stoner of Inherent Vice, but also drifts into the emotionally conflicted soldier returned from war as seen in The Master. Phoenix in full-body paralysis is forced to confront his demons while attending addiction groups led by group sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), and it’s here that the film finds its counter-balance to Callahan’s reckless, untamed nature. Donnie, with long flowing spiritually enlightened blonde locks, is both sagely and sympathetic to the group, and especially Callahan, whose scenes together prove master classes in performance. It’s exciting to see Jonah Hill continue to surprise audiences with his film choices, as this performance is as equally fearless and honest to Phoenix’s.
It should be known that Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is somewhat of a difficult watch. Not in a disturbing way – which some thematic elements are – but more that the film feels very much feels like a labor of love, particularly and intentionally laborious. The emotional heft and weight that the movie brings can only be assumed to honor both Callahan as well as the person who first brought the project to Van Sant to star in back in the nineties. The late Robin Williams, who previously starred in Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, was also a comedian battling his own demons, and the film would remain in development for twenty years until Williams’ untimely passing. Van Sant honors the artist’s emotional journeys of the struggle to find meaning in the wake of tragedy (the film is dedicated to Williams) and shows that through self-forgiveness and circumstances acceptance, life is best lived not with grief, but with a grin.
113 minutes. ‘Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot’ is rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity, and alcohol abuse. In select theaters May 11.