Every person’s life is a story. And many of those stories could be turned into an amazing movie if told the right way.
Cartoonist and writer John Callahan lived a fascinating life. One that begs to be told onscreen. Unfortunately, in the hands of Gus Van Sant, a story that should feel almost unbelievable instead stumbles along, constantly tripping over itself.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” stars Joaquin Phoenix as John. When he was 21, he and a friend got drunk and crashed their car in a car accident that left Callahan paralyzed. The accident required him to rebuild his life. He channeled his energies into drawing, becoming a popular cartoonist for The Willamette Gazette. He eventually quit drinking and later penned a memoir, “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?”
Hiring Joaquin Phoenix for the lead is a casting choice that should be perfect. And in a lot of ways, it is. Phoenix is a gifted actor, which few would debate. Over the course of his career, he’s played a sullen teenager with anger issues. And a sullen emperor with anger issues. But he has also played a lonely writer, a shy love interest, a country music superstar, a stoic hitman, and Jesus. His three Oscar nominations have come for three very different roles. He can be funny or sweet, terrifying or sympathetic.
Here, he is supposed to be some general combination of most of those. Not at all terrifying or menacing, but sweet and funny, and often just generally an ass. Phoenix brings the qualities that make him a uniquely talented performer. He is committed to each aspect of the role, from boozing deadbeat to trauma patient to a recovering addict. From an outsider’s perspective, Phoenix seems to do an excellent job with the mannerisms of a quadriplegic. He masters the use of an electric wheelchair. The viewer can sense his frustration as he clumsily uses both hands to try to hold a pen. On the technical aspects, it feels like he got it right.
And yet, something is off. Too often, Phoenix seems to be mugging for the camera. Which is sort of a hallmark of the John Callahan he embodies. The problem is that it doesn’t come across as wholly sincere. There are moments throughout where it simply feels like Phoenix is waiting to be told he’s doing a great job and to keep going. It is a strange thing to observe from someone who is normally so fully committed to the work.
Jonah Hill is Donnie, the leader of John’s AA group and eventually his sponsor. No one would have predicted that the young star of “Superbad” would have grown to become a two-time Academy Award nominee, but Hill is another star who has demonstrated a chameleon-like quality to take on a wide range of characters. As Donnie, he is subdued. His brilliant subtlety is always holding something back, while present in every moment. The problem with Donnie as a character is that we aren’t given enough of his story for him to be a thorough person, and we are given too much of him to be an enigma. The film needed either more or less Jonah Hill, and with as good as he is, I would opt for more.
Rooney Mara plays Annu, John’s sometimes girlfriend. Mara should never have accepted this role because it is one of the most thankless parts she has ever played. She is introduced immediately after John’s accident as a literal manic pixie dream girl. Perhaps not so manic. But certainly a dream girl with an actual pixie cut. Her character is so poorly written that even her name is unclear until the closing credits crawl up the screen. She appears out of nowhere, with no introduction to who she is or why she is even speaking to John. Eventually, we learn she is a therapist of some sort who helps paralyzed patients. Then she disappears, seemingly forever, only to reemerge later with a new career. The character is so strange and disconnected that there are only two plausible explanations. Theory #1, she doesn’t actually exist and is a figment of John’s imagination. Theory #2, she is the amalgamation of several women from John’s life, blended into one “perfect” woman. Whatever the explanation, it is a terrible creation and Mara deserves far better.
Other actors flit in and out of the story to varying degrees of interest. Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, and Ronnie Adrian are among a collection of members of John’s AA group. Carrie Brownstein should have been memorable as John’s social worker, Suzanne, but receives even worse treatment than Mara’s Annu and is relegated to a forgettable shrew. Jack Black gives two moving scenes as Dexter, John’s friend, and drinking buddy. His scenes remind us that as much as we enjoy his humor, we wish he would embrace more serious work, too.
The real problems with “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” belong to Gus Van Sant, who wrote the script in addition to directing. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, but there is no reason to do so. Sure, he attempts to make it something different than a standard A to B to C biopic. Telling a biographical story out of order works great when you are following themes or patterns. That isn’t present here. Instead, it looks like they uploaded all the footage, hit “random,” and let the computer decide on the order of things. It doesn’t work. John’s story isn’t a puzzle in need of assembly. His relationships aren’t building toward anything. The disjointed nature serves to hide the fact that they aren’t really sure how to make this anything other than a standard “inspirational” biopic.
Except that it really isn’t inspirational either. John isn’t a nice guy. He shows growth by the end, but it isn’t like he turns things around after his accident and suddenly changes his ways. The change happens gradually, and never fully. He stumbles into cartooning because he can do it and he likes to tell dirty jokes. It doesn’t happen as a result of searching for himself or trying to find a way to make his mark on the world. Even the seeming build up to a frequently teased public speech falls short of what it should be, given the context.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is the latest film in a long line from Van Sant that makes “Good Will Hunting” and “To Die For” seem like happy accidents. The director who gave us both of those also gave us “The Sea of Trees,” the very uneven “My Own Private Idaho” and remade “Psycho.” This film gives glimpses into the promising director we used to know. Unfortunately, between those glimpses are a whole lot of problems that never really come together.