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Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

With a title like that, I was immediately sold.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a biopic about John Callahan, here immortalized by Joaquin Phoenix. Callahan was born in Sweet Home Stumptown to a mother who didn’t want him, and was raised by adoptive parents. He was an alcoholic by age 13, worked as a musician in Long Beach, and became a quadriplegic in a drunken car accident at age 21. He then moved back to Portland and spent the rest of his life getting sober and speaking out for the disabled until he died in 2010 at the age of 59. All the while, he came to national infamy as an artist, with a massive and hysterical portfolio of satirical and sacrilegious cartoons.

So here’s a movie directed/written/co-edited by Gus Van Sant — possibly the most celebrated filmmaker ever born in Portland — about another Portland celebrity, and it’s set in Portland… but I can’t find any confirmation that the movie was actually shot in my hometown. Though I will say that wherever the movie was shot, it makes a perfect double for Portland. Too perfect, in fact. The limitations of the budget and production value are keenly felt, as everything looks too polished and “21st century” for the 1970s period that the movie was supposedly set in. Aside from some period costumes and cars, the ’70s veneer looks pretty thin. But of course that’s just a minor nitpick.

The real thrust of the movie concerns Callahan as he grapples with sobriety and learns how to live as a quadriplegic, to say nothing of his lingering resentment toward the mother that gave him up. Any one of these internal struggles could make for compelling character drama, never mind all three at the same time. There are a lot of great themes here — personal responsibility, the nature of forgiveness, learning humility and faith, the addictive trauma of substance abuse, and so on.

Joaquin Phoenix deserves tremendous credit for carrying the whole movie so beautifully. So much of Callahan’s actions and statements are powered by anger, sadness, rage, or plain ignorance, and Phoenix does a marvelous job of selling all these while earning audience sympathy, and he can do it all with barely a word spoken. Even so, the physical aspect of this performance is quite impressive, from the use of his arms to his hoarse whispers post-accident. Of course, it can’t be ignored that Phoenix is twice as old as Callahan actually was at this point in his life, but whatever.

(Side note: In case you’re wondering about the potential backlash and why Van Sant didn’t cast an actual disabled person in the role, the film needed someone who could play Callahan both pre- and post-accident. Also, Callahan reportedly wanted Robin Williams or Philip Seymour Hoffman to play him, so clearly the man himself didn’t care all that much.)

Then we have the supporting cast. Jonah Hill plays Donnie, Callahan’s AA sponsor, finally getting a chance to put his criminally underrated charisma to good use. Unfortunately, Hill’s outstanding performance is really the only memorable thing about the character — Donnie gets diagnosed with AIDS at one point, and that massive issue is barely even mentioned, much less explored.

Jack Black’s performance is pure Oscar gold, but he only gets two scenes and spends most of the film as an offscreen presence. Rooney Mara plays Annu, a nurse that the real-life Callahan never met again after moving back to Portland. You can tell that Annu’s role was expanded for the movie, given how extraneous and flimsy the romance subplot is. Though Mara is radiant throughout, no doubt about that. I could talk about Carrie Brownstein’s brief appearance or the people who comprise Callahan’s support group, but it’s more of the same: Fine performances from shallow characters.

Tragically, it’s the same deal with Callahan’s cartoons. We get just enough to show that Callahan is drawing these hysterical jokes, and we know that his work is highly controversial, but he doesn’t really start drawing until an hour into the movie. And even then, we only get a superficial sense of how intelligent, inflammatory, and influential Callahan’s work was. All we ever get are people saying some variation of “I loved that joke!” or “You should burn in hell!” The fleeting glimpses we get of Callahan’s career — mostly through cute little animated renditions of his cartoons — are only enough to show how much untapped material is there.

Worst of all, the movie never explores how Callahan’s drawing work played any kind of part in his recovery and sobriety. That’s an egregious oversight, considering that Callahan’s struggle with getting his life on straight is the whole point of the movie, and the cartoons are the primary reason why anybody knows who Callahan is. This story tries to focus on Callahan’s internal struggle with getting sober and learning how to live as a paraplegic, and that does make for some incredible drama. The problem is that it’s tied in with so many other disparate factors in such a wild and extraordinary life that the movie spreads itself too thin.

It certainly doesn’t help that the editing plays fast and loose with time. All throughout the movie — especially in the first act — we’re jumping backwards and forwards through time as John remembers himself remembering other events. As a direct result, we’re taken through so many different plot lines with no clue as to which ones are dead ends and which will come up later. Granted, it’s a neat little cinematic device to show the ephemeral nature of time and interpersonal relationships, and to illustrate how recovery isn’t always a straight line. Even so, if a movie is all about someone’s recovery, it’s rather important that we keep a straight timeline so we can follow the character through so many ups and downs in getting from A to B.

Also — and I say this with all respect — Callahan is far from the only person who’s ever had to work hard at getting sober. Furthermore, he’s hardly the only one who’s ever had to learn how to live with paralysis. These are universal struggles and standard Oscar-bait material, but this movie had the potential to layer it with something unique to John Callahan. This could have been a movie about his cartoons, how they helped him deal with his inner demons, and how they may have helped others who are disabled or overlooked by society. This movie could have been a moving portrait of John Callahan, a story about recovery unique to this one exceptional person who changed the world in his own special way.

Instead, the filmmakers leaned on Callahan’s absentee mother, tying his personal growth to his reconciliation with her. Not a bad choice, in my opinion, but a wrong choice nonetheless.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is sweet, but unwieldy. Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic and the supporting players are wonderful across the board, which is especially impressive given how little the supporting players had to work with. The central struggle of trying to grow into a sober and functional human being leads to a lot of wonderful character drama, but there are so many more fascinating topics on the fringes that are barely hinted at. The filmmakers tried to cover more ground by cutting back and forth across time, but that only serves to make the film more confusing and load the plot with dead-end storylines.

Overall, I’d say that this is definitely home viewing material.

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