In film, when a main character has a disability, often the story focuses on how the person became disabled and/or how they find a way to overcome it. While there are elements of that in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the sentimentality that usually accompanies such a film is all but missing.
That’s because the film is a biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), whose cantankerous personality and perpetually drunk state through much of the film make him a difficult person for whom to root. Writer/director Gus Van Sant takes the pingpong approach to filmmaking, bouncing back and forth in time to show Callahan at various stages in his life.
Those stages include him as a young, able-bodied man whose alcoholism leads to his fateful car accident; in the hospital during recovery, where he meets Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish woman with whom he becomes romantically attached; during his attempts at becoming sober, where he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings led by Donnie (Jonah Hill); and as he starts his career as a cartoonist, peddling his panels to whomever would publish them.
However, you’ll have to pay extra close attention if you want to keep the timeline straight, as Van Sant refuses to provide any signposts for the audience. One minute Callahan is seemingly on the road to recovery, and the next he’s drinking like a fish. For most of the film he is clean shaven, but then a mustache mysteriously appears before disappearing again a few minutes later.
Non-linear storytelling can work, but not when the filmmaker seems to be throwing scenes together at random. Matters aren’t helped by what appear to be anachronistic references to Chucky from the Child’s Play movie series and the proliferation of Starbucks, both of which would not seem to fit the movie’s setting of the 1970s and ‘80s. Also, the 44-year-old Phoenix plays Callahan from 21 to his 50s, and aside from some minor hair changes, they make little attempt to show exactly what age he is in any particular scene.
The film is at its strongest when Callahan is interacting with people from AA. There is a clear line from the power he derives from his conversations there, to his wanting to improve himself by not drinking, and committing to his newfound passion of drawing. Callahan conceiving — and then displaying — those drawings are some of the best scenes in the film, containing a looseness that benefits the story greatly.
Despite the muddled storytelling, the film is successful thanks to a number of great performances and the bawdy humor of Callahan himself. Phoenix plays Callahan in all of his politically incorrect glory, and the laughs he garners are well-earned. Hill uses Donnie’s long hair, hippie wardrobe, and flamboyant personality for all it’s worth, delivering another great performance in what is becoming an acclaimed career.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a funny and ultimately moving film about a man who was not easy to love. It’s just too bad that Van Sant couldn’t find a way to tell a more comprehensible story.