Imagine a biopic about Beethoven that focuses almost entirely on how hard it was for him to lose his hearing and navigate day-to-day life as a deaf man. The details of this story, his pain as he comes to terms with his disability, the support and challenges that he receives from his community, the spiritual and psychological epiphanies that allow him to make peace with his situation, are handled deftly, respecting our legendary protagonist while being honest about his shortcomings, executed with fluid direction and solid performances.
But why Beethoven? Since the goal of this narrative approach seems to be to present a universally relatable drama about the conflict of living with such a disability, what’s the point of delivering a Beethoven biopic if the film will barely mention his music? Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot works similarly, made all the more frustrating because the art of the artist at its center should be better known.
Still, the film is a wistful biopic that can be direct when it needs to be. It’s about John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), the Portland, Oregon-based alcoholic, quadriplegic cartoonist famous for his simply drawn, minimalist cartoons that gleefully pushed sociopolitical buttons regardless of on which side of the political aisle one supposedly falls. A sequence late in the film shows a female bartender being offended by his cartoon depicting a man being afraid of a sign that warns him against lesbians. Another man at the bar offers further reading on the cartoon: It’s published in Penthouse, a magazine read by alpha males who would be threatened by lesbians, a group of women who don’t need them. Therefore, the joke is on the reader, not the lesbians. More scenes like this, offering interesting insights into Callahan’s work and artistic vision, might have added depth, yet they come across as an afterthought in the finished film. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is almost entirely about how Callahan’s alcoholism led to a car wreck that left him quadriplegic, and how he pulled himself out of his sorrowful existence through an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy group hosted by a groovy gay man named Donnie (Jonah Hill, rocking a “Jesus by way of Bee Gees” look).
After a brief hook establishes Callahan’s career as a cartoonist, the film’s first and second acts almost entirely join the man on his journey to find some peace, struggling to maintain his sobriety as he goes through the 12 steps in a fairly episodic fashion. These sections seem to provide insight into alcoholism and the life of a quadriplegic—an especially amusing sequence features a nurse telling Callahan how he can achieve an erection while actively instructing him to ask his nurse if she will sit on his face—and the film’s performances are natural, with Van Sant achieving a consistent tone demonstrating how Callahan’s sense of humor got him through even the most testing times. But his desire to become a cartoonist, or even his ambitions as an artist, are barely mentioned save for very rare, quick cutaways to animated adaptations of his most well-known cartoons.
Van Sant, also credited as co-editor, uses some clever tricks here and there, like cutting to quick glimpses of a memory when it’s mentioned before easing us into a full-on flashback, mimicking the fragmented way memories usually work. Which also leads to some messy pacing and unnecessary sub-plots. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara is charming as a Swedish nurse who offers some form of solace during one of Callahan’s worse moments. However, she later shows up as Callahan’s girlfriend and Van Sant has no idea what to do with her. She merely ends up as a placeholder, and we don’t see how her presence affects Callahan’s life one way or the other. The central impactful relationship in the story is between Callahan and Donnie, and Phoenix and Hill showcase some palpable chemistry. One surprisingly effective performance comes from Jack Black, whose sad sack alcoholic party animal character is only in two sequences, but makes an impact by taking full advantage of Black’s forte as a comedic actor.
Gus Van Sant’s film certainly captures how Callahan used whimsy as a defense mechanism against seemingly insurmountable real-life conflict, but Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot captures little of how Callahan’s art was such a vital part of that whimsy.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Udo Kier, Carrie Brownstein
Release Date: July 20, 2018