Joaquin Phoenix stars in a conventional biopic about disabled cartoonist John Callahan, whose life and work were anything but conventional.
In a comic strip by cartoonist John Callahan, a sheriff and his posse find an abandoned wheelchair in the desert. One cowboy says to the other, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” It’s an amusing strip, and it’s made all the more relevant when you know the story of Callahan himself, who used biting, sometimes offensive humor to process his own disability.
The strip also represents a self-aware wit that is, sadly, lacking in Gus Van Sant’s new biopic about John Callahan. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is an earnest but conventional biopic, in which Callahan’s life is mostly told through the lens of his experience at Alcoholics Anonymous, where his abandonment issues take center stage. His art, and his humor, sit most of the movie out, much to its detriment.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, a lifelong alcoholic who meets another heavy drinker at a party, goes on an all-night bender, and winds up in a horrifying car accident. His drinking buddy Dexter (Jack Black) walks away unscathed, but Callahan will never walk again, and only has a very limited range of motion in his arms.
It’s not a good place for someone who already has dependency issues to be, and sure enough Callahan quickly resumes drinking, as well as moaning to anyone who will listen about how his mother abandoned him at birth. When he finally finds his way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting he thinks it’s the perfect opportunity to elicit sympathy. But he’s unprepared for how much his attitude will be challenged by his sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill), a rich hippie with a highly spiritual outlook on life and funny pet names for God.
So much of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot takes place in AA meetings that every other aspect of Callahan’s life begins to feel unimportant. That might have been satisfactory if the rest of Callahan’s life wasn’t so darned interesting. He even tries to give a big speech about the bureaucratic failures of the health care system, a topic on which he has a unique and valid perspective, but he’s shouted down by his peers and told to focus his energies on his own failures instead.
That approach may have value for Callahan as a recovering alcoholic, but for the audience, it becomes repetitive quickly, and even comes across as disrespectful to the rest of his experiences. Callahan’s transition to a cartoonist, the physical struggles he has to overcome to draw his strips, and even his sense of humor are sidelined. There’s no indication that Callahan has a sense of humor until after he’s already become a cartoonist. There’s no indication that he has any interest in art until after he’s an artist. These things just sort of happen, neither motivated nor meaningfully, in between big speeches about why he drinks.
Gus Van Sant has an eye for details, and many of Callahan’s fellow AA members have short but memorable moments and observations to make. Joaquin Phoenix has always given exceptional performances and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot isn’t an exception. The movie isn’t “bad” by any traditional standard but the generic TV movie dramatic tropes the filmmakers fall into make the movie feel like a missed opportunity to turn a distinctive, interesting person’s life into a distinctive, interesting movie.