In the middle of a desert plain, a sheriff and his deputy stand stock still on horseback. An empty wheelchair sits immobile in front of them. Wearing a cowboy hat, the sheriff turns to his sidekick and says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”
That’s the caption on a black-and-white cartoon drawn by the late John Callahan (1951-2010) and the name of a new Gus Van Sant film about the cartoonist. The panel offers a typical example of Callahan’s wry sense of humor, but unlike the cartoon, the tone of this biopic is earnest—not sardonic.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot fits into the “Poignant Melodrama” section of Van Sant’s oeuvre, along with films like Good Will Hunting, Milk and Finding Forrester. The more experimental filmmaker behind Elephant, Gerry and My Own Private Idaho here relies on Joaquin Phoenix’s performance to provide moments of emotional unpredictability. Animated versions of Callahan’s trenchant cartoons break the story up from time to time, but they don’t appear often enough to truly resonate. Instead, the three-time Academy Award nominee plays the stormy figure at the center of a conventional narrative.
Phoenix portrays Callahan at various stages in his life—as a paraplegic, as a recovering alcoholic and as a cartoonist for the Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon. Van Sant, who is also credited with writing the screenplay, doesn’t adhere to a chronological telling of that narrative arc. By layering and overlapping different versions of the same man, the director appears to be extracting, or at least simulating, Callahan’s actual memories. A warm orange or sepia-toned filter signals scenes set in the past, specifically the 1970s, when Callahan gets into the car accident that leaves him paralyzed for the rest of his life.
The familiar elements of tragic accident and subsequent recovery in Don’t Worry’s plot recall films like John Sayle’s 1992 Passion Fish (with Mary McDonnell) and last year’s Stronger, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal. Both of those films feature characters who become disabled—McDonnell’s fictional soap opera actress also suffers a car accident and Gyllenhaal plays the real-life Jeff Bauman, who was critically injured at the Boston Marathon bombing. We watch the actors as they adjust to, and also psychologically resist, the way their bodies have been changed. In this respect, Van Sant’s film is no different, except that Callahan’s physical recovery runs parallel to his recovery from alcoholism. And so half of Don't Worry is devoted to a therapy group that Callahan finds at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
The group meets weekly at the posh house his A.A. sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill) inherited from his family. Van Sant’s camera circles the room, filming confessions from a cast filled with unexpected cameos. Phoenix, who could never play an everyman, fits right in with Donnie’s gang of eccentrics. The singer/songwriters Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon recount their stories alongside the mad-eyed German actor Udo Kier and a mostly silent Tony Greenhand a.k.a. The World’s Greatest Joint Roller. But Callahan especially bonds with Donnie, who shares his sense of humor, and who counsels him when his newly sober emotions swing out of control.
During the course of the film, Callahan has an affair with Annu (Rooney Mara), a Scandinavian social worker/therapist he meets in the hospital after his accident. The two actors were also paired Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), where Mara had a lot more to do and say than look ethereal. In Don’t Worry, her hospital job, her specific origins and what becomes of their relationship never gets spelled out. Van Sant writes very few lines for Annu and that plays into Mara’s talent for projecting an inviolable mystique. Per usual, her spiritual radiance remains intact but the character she plays drifts out of Callahan’s life as if she’d never been real. She leaves us with the suggestion that, perhaps, he’d only imagined her into being.
The director doesn’t delve very far into Callahan’s artistic imagination either. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is instead Callahan’s tale of redemption through a 12-step program. To paraphrase James Joyce, it’s a portrait of the artist as a young alcoholic. Once sober, we see Phoenix pick up a black felt tip pen and start drawing comic characters—but Van Sant doesn’t amplify the moment. Unlike R. Crumb's underground comics in Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1994), Callahan’s comics don’t drive the narrative. His recovery does. What Van Sant and Phoenix emphasize about Callahan’s life—and what makes it heroic enough to sustain a two hour film—was his ability to look back with laughter at his alcoholism and his sudden paralysis rather than living out the rest of his days in silent despair.
'Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot' opens Thursday, July 19 at the AMC Kabuki.