By Jim Slotek
An often achingly-tragic film about a guy who gave the world a lot of guilty laughs, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot is Gus Van Sant’s portrait of the late John Callahan, a quadriplegic cartoonist with a reputation for pointed offensiveness.
It also, at times, could double as an unpaid ad for Alcoholics Anonymous, so thoroughly does its narrative track its protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix) through its famous Twelve Step program. But it is central to the story.
What the story misses is where it all fits in Callahan’s contribution to the world, let alone where his delight in black humour and offence-causing really came from. (Distributed by the same company as The Far Side, Callahan’s work shared that cartoon’s oblique vision, but could be much nastier – as when he depicted Christ on the cross declaring “Thank God, it’s Friday.” As such, it was closer in theme to the works of offenders like Gahan Wilson and Sam Gross).
Through flashbacks and the facile device of falling off his wheelchair in front of a bunch of skater boys who ask questions about his catheter and notebook, we meet both the pre-wheelchair John, an Oregon kid who moves to L.A., enslaved by the bottle, and the Portland-based quad John, who is oddly-liberated by comparison.
People walk in and out of this story, like Dexter (Jack Black) a party animal who becomes tequila-swilling John’s new best friend one fateful night and takes him on the vehicular party crawl that would sever his spine, and Annu, (Rooney Mara), the therapy nurse who first appears angelically to John in a drugged, post-operative haze and later becomes his lover and counsellor on the finer points of paralysis and sex.
And then there is the AA group itself, a collection of sad stories that serves as an object lesson for eschewing the crutch of self-pity. “Poor me, poor me turns into ‘Pour me,’” one of his groupmates declares.
The one fully fleshed-out supporting character is the complex Donnie (an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill), the AA leader/sponsor who calls the group his “piglets” with equal parts love and disdain, a hippie-ish philosophical soul from a straitlaced, rich family. The subtle interplay in the scenes Phoenix and Hill share are when Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot rises above the shoebox of tragic, redemptive tale.
But that shoebox doesn’t include some of the things people familiar with Callahan might be curious about. Clearly, his injury and disability informed much of his work (the title itself references a panel where a posse of cowboys encounters their fugitive’s abandoned wheelchair in the desert). It served to deflect pity with anger.
But did his desire to offend predate his injury? The ambulatory John we meet is never not drunk, so we learn almost nothing about him and his world view.
Callahan, who died in 2010, understood the emotional venting behind his work and talked about it. As moving as it often is, we get a lot of the venting in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, but not enough of the work, or the man behind it.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, Written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara. Opening Friday, July 20 in Toronto and Vancouver.