Director/writer Gus Van Sant has regularly embraced challenging subject matter: 1991’s My Own Private Idaho on street hustlers played by Joachin Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, 2003’s Elephant on the Columbine massacre, and 2008’s Milk on gay rights activist Harvey Milk, among others. Now, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot tackles alcoholism and the accident leaving John Callahan a quadriplegic. Continue reading…
Adapted from Callahan’s 1990 real-life memoir, the film focuses first on his excessive drinking, leading to his involvement in a disastrous car crash at age 21. After arduous rehabilitation, Callahan moves on to racing wildly around his native Portland in his electric wheelchair. He also discovers his talent as an uninhibited sketch cartoonist with a dark sense of humor, as the title Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot announces. It’s the caption for two cowboys next to an empty wheelchair in the desert. Some take offense at the ribald depictions, especially of handicapped individuals, others enjoy his iconoclastic attitude. One teacher aptly observes, “Craft seeks for perfection; art seeks expression.” How much Callahan succeeds depends on the viewer’s perspective.
Van Sant keeps scenes short, cuts forward and backward in time, and uses some creative visuals to keep the story moving briskly, adding more interest than actually resides in this rather routine profile. In other words, the alcoholic Callahan typically, insistently and repeatedly blames his mother who didn’t want him and many others for his own failings. He eventually learns to make amends and push toward forgiveness through the 12-step counseling of his self-satisfied sponsor and group leader Donnie who calls his devotees piglets.
The performances are solid: Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, Jonah Hill as a surprisingly subdued Donnie, and Rooney Mara wasted as his enabling, Swedish physical therapy girlfriend Annu, an offensive sexist cliché. But it’s the story that never catches fire and the narcissistic tone that is off-putting. Van Sant spent twenty-one years working on development of the film, a real labor of love for him. Unfortunately, Callahan, eager for the biopic, died at 59 years of age in 2010.