“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is a conventionally unconventional take on “recovery” movie motif — recovery from a paralyzing accident, recovery from the alcoholism that led to it.
Not everybody who finds himself confined to a wheelchair, a hopeless quadriplegic drunk, can become a celebrated cartoonist with a Swedish airline hostess for a girlfriend. But if John Callahan did it, well…
That’s glib and a bit mean, but it gets the only serious knock on this warm and engaging Gus Van Sant film out of the way up front. The isn’t the experience of the vast majority of “quads.” But Van Sant, like the amusingly self-aware Callahan, pokes fun at that and pinches until it hurts. Get beyond the surface Callahan, and glibness flees into the night.
Exceptional stories are the ones movies are made from, and Callahan, a dark and cynical Portland, Oregon (Van Sant Country) cartoonist who joked about his physical limitations, the Klan and sexuality in his Willamette Week and New Yorker cartoons, was nothing if not exceptional.
His life becomes the source for another startling transformation for Joaquin Phoenix, who shares the spotlight and the kudos with Jonah Hill and Jack Black, two stand-out supporting players in this uplifting Twelve Steps Taken in a Wheelchair comedy.
Callahan’s story is framed within a public acclamation, a speech Callahan is giving at the height of his fame. It is, we quickly discover, an over-rehearsed, oft-repeated recital of his orphaned childhood, the “Irish” “school teacher” mother who, by the way, “didn’t want me.” Callahan has been telling this story ever since he ended up in a wheelchair, as an explanation, a casting of blame, a crutch.
Because he needs one. There are a lot of stupid ways for a slacker — Portland or otherwise — to justify his never making anything of his life. Callahan was a once-promising artist who wound up painting houses, and a hopeless drink since his teens. The drinking calms him, or so he tells himself.
A bottle at his side, John is a charmer (so he thinks), a sarcastic wit, fun to talk to at parties. In his own mind, anyway.
So why does he end up sneaking off to the bathroom to spike his beer, instantly abandoned by the attractive woman he was talking up at the party? Why is he so willing to ditch that party for a round of bar-hopping and binge-drinking with a smarmy hale fellow, well-met he’s just met (Jack Black)?
That led to an accident, which put him through painful, soul-crushing rehab. Callahan suffers, trapped in his own thoughts, losing his marbles, barely able to summon the dark wit it takes to place himself “somewhere between Decathlon champion and rigor mortis.”
But even that doesn’t change Callahan’s innate recklessness. Check out the way he hurtles hither and yon in his first electric wheelchair. Anywhere else, this genuine Portland character would have been run over or toppled and left to die in a ditch.
But in Portland he is tolerated, and once he re-learned to draw — both hands on the pen — he is celebrated. He charms a Swedish nurse’s assistant who becomes a stewardess (Rooney Mara). And with all that, he repeats and rehearses his “My mother didn’t want me” speech until that day he figures he needs to tell it at an AA meeting.
It’s there, in the no-nonsense zone established by rich, gay, profane and bored-with-your-crap Meeting Leader Donnie (Jonah Hill, transformed), that Callahan begins to get a grip on who he is and how he got that way.
Beth Ditto plays Reba, a portly Southern transplant in their group who endures Callahan’s insults, and hits him with one that cuts him to the marrow.
“It’s always ‘Poor me, poor me,’ until it gets to be ‘POUR me another drink!”
Van Sant takes the Twelve Step program seriously, making sure to give it an irreverent Portlandia twist. Callahan’s group has a damaged vet, a gay and defiantly penis-centric poet and others — just like him — who always had an excuse to drink.
Hill, bearded, bare-chested, relaxed and funny, has a “big speech,” of course. But it’s the ease he fits into this slim 1970s gay hipster that marks this performance.
Black revisits his “life of the party,” hep-cat Falstaff persona as Dexter, the party animal there for Callahan’s last night on two legs. But when he returns, and you might even know which “step” Dexter will make his next appearance in, Black gives us embarrassed, guilty, resigned to his fate and joyful at being forgiven with just his eyes. For my money, that’s the best scene in the movie.
Phoenix? He’s always done vulnerable well, but his Callahan (who died in 2010) is the most self-assured we’ve ever seen him, righteous in his reasons to drink, steeled against the criticism his outrageous politically incorrect cartoons earned him in 1980s Portland.
And the fact that’s really him flying through traffic, down crowded sidewalks, in that teetering motorized chair is a stunt and sight gag worthy of the silent film masters.
The star-crossed nature of Callahan’s life is one thing that gave me pause, that first “knock” I mentioned above. And Van Sant’s decision to include a female therapist’s blunt suggestion that Callahan proposition a nurse as sexual therapy (who then accepts it) is “World According to Garp” creepy and tone-deaf in #MeToo America.
But Van Sant never fails to get a laugh out of Callahan’s cynical out-of-left-field cartoons, which he has animated in squiggle-vision at various points in the narrative. “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” takes its title from one of those, an Old West posse finding a wheelchair in the desert, their quarry having abandoned it.
And Van Sant, a legendarily sensitive filmmaker, never fails to see the difficulties in Callahan’s journey, the spirit it takes to overcome them or the fact that they were all difficulties of the man’s own creation. That lifts this “uplifting” story above the twelve steps that are its natural starting point and into the realm of something more challenging than the genre conventions it otherwise adheres to.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and alcohol abuse
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black
Credits: Written and directed by Gus Van San , based on the John Callahan memoir. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:54