Review: John Callahan Deserves Better than the Mediocre Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot takes its name from the punchline of a single-panel comic by its subject, quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. In his signiture squiggly lines, Callahan depicts a group of cowboys surrounding an overturned wheelchair. “Don’t worry,” the leader declares; “He won’t get far on foot.”

Like most of Callahan’s work, the cartoon is simple, witty, and deeply uncomfortable. It’s also everything the movie is not.

In writer/director Gus Van Sant’s adaptation of Callahan’s autobiography by the same name, Joaquin Phoenix plays the title character both in his younger days as an alcoholic ne’er-do-well and as man working toward recovery after a drunk driving accident leaves him wheelchair bound. Although he’s best known for the sometimes shocking one-panel gag strips he started drawing after his accident, these came relatively late in Callahan’s life and Van Sant’s movie takes a long view, focusing instead on his alcoholism and progress through Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s there that he meets Donnie (Jonah Hill), the very rich gay man who leads sessions with a stern compassion, and other outcasts trying to kick their habit.

The group session scenes present the best and worst of what the movie has to offer. In the same way magnetic character actor Udo Keir is wasted as an uptight older man, so also are Rooney Mara and Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein forced to make the most of the limited screentime given to their one-note characters. But in the same way Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto shines in her few scenes as a straightshooting southerner, Jack Black turns in the best work of his career in his small, but pivitol role.

The banter between the group members gives the movie a chance to employ the irreverent humor for which Callahan was best known. But it’s also the place where characters make the long, tearful speeches one expects from a AA movie, often with Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristically maudlin score slathered over it. Van Sant does insert a few unexpected stylistic flourishes into the narrative, including animated versions of Callahan’s strips and some moments of magical realism, as well as a fractured chronology. But these tricks ultimately muddy the narrative without adding nuance to what is fundamentally a cliched redemption story. In fact, by opening with a sucessful and sober Callahan, Don’t Worry undermines the only tension it’s interested in, making the whole thing a dull stroll to a predectiable conclusion.

Which isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have its charms. Van Sant remains a master of finding tiny, meaningful character interactions, and it still stars Phoenix, one of contemporary cinemas most interesting actors. Even if it isn’t as complex a performance as the one he gave in this year’s You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix imbues his character with a compelling mix of bitterness and longing, deftly playing the cliche confession and revelation scenes with more humanity than one often sees in such familiar narrative beats.

Overall, Don’t Worry is a pleasant and unremarkable biopic about an often unpleasant and very remarkable person.

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