Say what you will about John Callahan—he was crude, offensive, sophomoric, hilarious, brilliant, whatever—you can’t deny that he was unique. His heady single panel comics never failed to provoke extreme emotions, even if the only thing you felt was callous indifference.
Today he’d be maligned for his provocations, pilloried as un-P.C. and raked across the coals of social media. I imagine he would have relished in that, laughing all the while. That was the way he seemed to roll; the vehemence of his detractors fueled his every bit as much as the love of his fans. Perhaps even more.
That his life was so beset by tragedy makes his story all the more compelling. It’s no wonder that director Gus Van Sant nurtured this project for decades, trying again and again to bring Callahan’s story to life. The result, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, is a lot like Callahan’s comic work: A mixed bag of highs and lows.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, following his life from hopeless drunk to hopeless quadriplegic to cartoonist. This is a story of despair and redemption, following the journey of a man from his worst to his best, along the way giving us an up close and personal look at the process of recovery.
After suffering a near fatal drunk driving accident that left him paralyzed, from which his friend, Dexter (Jack Black), walks away unscathed, Callahan sinks into the depths of hopelessness, spiraling deeper and deeper into alcoholism until hitting rock bottom and deciding to join Alcoholics Anonymous. Led by his sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), Callahan begins to find his purpose in the world.
Phoenix and Hill are both bright spots in an otherwise messy film. Don’t Worry unfolds anachronically, jumping around from one period to another without any real clues about when and where an event is taking place. Well, that’s not quite true. We can, for instance, tell the difference between drunkard Callahan and sober Callahan, and it’s also pretty easy to distinguish between pre and post-accident Callahan. The effect, however, is jarring, making it hard to focus on any single plot line for an extended period of time.
I suspect this was an attempt to mirror Callahan’s single panel format as best as could be done cinematically. Callahan’s strips followed no order, they just happened. Whatever was on his mind on a particular day, or whatever struck him as amusing, was what he drew. The structure of the film almost feels like this, with scenes standing alone, context only building over time.
It’s an intriguing effect, but never quite adds up to anything special, only serves to mask the otherwise completely standard biopic form. As said, Phoenix shines as Callahan, infusing the character with pathos and agency and delivering one of his best performances in years (between this and You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix is having a pretty stellar 2018). Hill, too, proves yet again that he is more than a hilarious sideman.
Their relationship provides a fascinating look inside the process of recovery and the bonds formed while trying to heal. Donnie needles and cajoles John, forcing him to dig deeper and deeper into his own self to understand why he is the way he is, confronting the demons of his past. It’s a loving kind of antagonistic, however. The push-pull of their interactions is uniquely insightful, and the dynamic between the actors is always a joy to watch.
Still, though inspiring and well-performed, the film, as a whole, never feels anything other than fine. Perhaps interest in Callahan, who died in 2010, and his work will be reignited by the film, which would represent a net positive, all told. As a film, however, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot leaves too much to be desired to have a real impact on its own.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is now playing in select theaters.