Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto, Mark Webber, Tony Greenhand, Carrie Brownstone.
The late US cartoonist John Callahan is not a household name, and is largely unheard of outside of the United States, which makes this quirky and unconventional biopic a bit of a hard sell. Callahan died in 2010. Set in Portland Oregon during the late 70s and early 80s this biopic looks at the life of Callahan (played here in a career best performance by Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic who was left a quadriplegic at the age of 21 after a car accident. He was not a very likeable person as he treated everybody around him pretty poorly, especially his long-suffering carer.
Eventually he joins Alcoholics Anonymous and begins to turn his life around and overcome his addiction. During the meetings run by the charismatic, hippie-like sponsor Donnie (an almost unrecogniseable Jonah Hill), Callahan discovers an innate talent for drawing edgy and irreverent cartoons. His cartoons covered a range of taboo topics and their politically incorrect nature is not something that he could get away with so easily these days. Callahan also embarks on a twelve-step program to reclaim his life and seek forgiveness and closure from those people his behaviour has hurt along the way.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is based on Callahan’s own memoir, which takes its title from the punchline of one of his cartoons. Initially the late great comic Robin Williams had in the 1990s optioned Callahan’s book for a film he was interested in making with Gus Van Sant, but he never got around to getting the project off the ground. The script has been written by Gus Van Sant along with first time writers Jack Gibson and William Andrew Eatman, and they provide a deft balance between humour, darker truths and insights and more poignant emotional moments.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far By Foot film reunites Phoenix with Gus Van Sant, who directed him in the dark 1995 comedy To Die For (the first time that he was credited under the name of Joaquin, having previously been credited under the name of Leaf Phoenix). This is another film that explores the challenges of misfits existing on the fringes of mainstream society, a theme common to many of Van Sant’s films. A committed Phoenix delivers an understated turn as the damaged Callahan, and he captures the mix of shame, guilt and anger that his character experiences. He also captures his acerbic and irreverent sense of humour.
Van Sant has assembled a solid ensemble cast that includes Rooney Mara (from the recent Biblical drama Mary Magdalene, etc) who is wasted in a thankless role as Annu, Callahan’s Swedish occupational therapist, while the likes of Udo Kier, and musicians like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Gossip’s Beth Ditto play part of Callahan’s tight knit recovery group. There is also a surprisingly strong dramatic performance from Jack Black, who plays Dexter, a former wise-cracking party boy and drinking buddy of Callahan, in a brief scene.
The film is steeped in a gritty 70s aesthetic, thanks to the sepia toned cinematography of long-time collaborator Christopher Blauvelt (Meek’s Cutoff, etc).
However, this well-intentioned film never quite rises above some well worn clichés, and never really explores in any depth how Callahan became a cartoonist of repute. Van Sant includes some stylistic flourishes as he reproduces some of Callahan’s cartoons for the screen. But the pacing is a little too slow at times and the non-linear narrative seems disjointed and episodic in structure. The film is a far cry from his work on more mainstream, crowd pleasing films like the Oscar winning Good Will Hunting, etc. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot doesn’t quite connect with those audiences who are unfamiliar with Callahan and his work.