Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot review: Gus Van Sant returns to the Berlinale with his latest feature, a film inspired by true live events of Portland cartoonist John Callahan’s life, based on his 1989 memoir of the same name.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot review by Paul Heath.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, which focuses upon a specific period of Callahan’s life, employs a two-tiered structure, one with Callahan on stage giving a live talk, the cartoonist speaking from a wheelchair to a capacity crowd, the other a retrospective series of scenes involving his alcoholism and meetings with his sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill). Scripted by Van Sant, the film has very good intentions, but a muddled script and baffling decisions leave it far from a masterful piece of work from the season filmmaker.
The film starts in 1972, Joaquin Phoenix ‘s Callahan seen running through the streets of his home town looking for a hangover remedy following a seemingly massive night out the day before. The voiceover, from Phoenix who is recounting these events later in an alcoholics anonymous meeting, tells us, as Callahan, that this was the last day he walked. Starting with a bottle of vodka, necked when crouching behind a parked car in the middle of the street, would lead to another night on the town with a random stranger (Dexter – played by Jack Black) which would lead to tragedy. The film has already told us by this point that a car accident will leave the 21-year-old with life-changing injuries, a devastating incident which would also change Callahan’s direction creatively – by him starting to draw satirical and indeed controversial cartoons, which would also give him a new lease of life.
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There are many issues with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, but as an overall movie, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and sentiment to be seen, Van Sant’s screenplay taking a light-hearted look at a man disabled by alcoholism as well as by his injuries sustained by an horrific accident. Melancholic in nature, as well as witty and heartfelt, you can see why at one point this such a passion project for the late Robin Williams who apparently wanted to pursue the film in honour of his friend Christopher Reeve, who was also a quadriplegic, and even asked Van San to look at writing a screenplay from the source material.
Following Williams’ tragic death in 2014, Van Sant has obviously continued with writing the script, and eventually cast Phoenix in the lead. The actor is solid as Callahan, but this is a role that commands the actor to play a 21-year -old – Phoenix is 43 at the time of writing – with nothing more than an overgrown wig to shield his age. While this shouldn’t matter, it is distracting, and it is his co-star Jonah Hill who steals the show as his rich sponsor Donnie, who would eventually become his friend. This is Hill’s best work since The Wolf Of Wall Street, the slimmed actor fine as the intensely focussed, very priviidge support worker and former alcoholic trying to do good in the world. Jack Black’s extended cameo as Dexter – who we see for just a few key scenes – is also on form and there’s further support from Rooney Mara, who is sadly largely wasted, a very funny Udo Keir in a small role and even The Gossip’s Beth Ditto in a pleasing debut turn as fellow alcoholic Reba.
I took issue with some of the film’s other sub-plots – all of the stuff with Callahan’s soul searching and the stuff with his mother seemed out of place – and scenes with his carer at home a little underdeveloped. However, I did find the film laugh-out-loud funny in places and a little self-reflective, though not over sentimental in any way. The way that Van Sant features many of Callahan’s drawings in the movie is done well also; from animated versions over the open titles, views of a marker physically mapping out the cartoons before us and even Phoenix darting around town to show the finished results in popular publications – all conveyed by lingering shots to allow to absorb the humour. The scenes with the skateboard kids that bookend the movie are also well done, the one at the end of the film almost guaranteed to get a laugh from the audience before the credits role.
Far from Van Sant’s best work, but aside from a few groans an otherwise solid celebration of man who celebrated and lived life to the full after overcoming his early demons.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot review by Paul Heath, February 2018.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot was reviewed at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.