Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is a biopic of the late Oregon cartoonist John Callahan, which is to say it’s a movie about a quadriplegic, a tortured artist and a recovering alcoholic. That runs the risk of making it sound like the ultimate in intersectional Oscar-bait, a chance for film critics and awards voters to shower dubious praise on three showy feats of actorly transformation in one movie, all of them courtesy of the reliably protean Joaquin Phoenix.
The cinematic depiction of people with disabilities and diseases comes with various potential pitfalls (more on that later), the risk of overfamiliarity and cliché not least among them. And Van Sant, whose own filmmaking career has ping-ponged between the fringes of the independent movement and the heart of the studio mainstream, does not exactly set out to thwart convention.
But he doesn’t succumb to it, either. With warmth, humor, a vibrant Danny Elfman score and a rich vein of personal feeling, he marries the loose, ragged feel of his early outsider portraits like “Drugstore Cowboy” to the therapeutic uplift and polished craftsmanship of “Good Will Hunting.”
The expected narrative beats are in place, if not always in order: the glimpses of a younger, ambulatory Callahan, a hard drinker since his teenage years; the devastating 1972 car accident that severed his spine and put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life; the rock-bottom despair that pushed him into Alcoholics Anonymous and a difficult journey toward sobriety and renewal. Much of the movie, with its artfully scrambled chronology and clear emotional throughlines, seems to be structured around Callahan’s steady progression through the 12 steps — a conceit that might have left the story feeling overly earnest and programmatic.
The achievement of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is not that it avoids this trap entirely — it doesn’t — but rather that it seems determined to fight that trap at every step, and even to pry it open. Van Sant pays tribute to the restorative power of faith, discipline and perseverance, but he also resists the temptation to follow these themes into an overly pat or complacent groove. Callahan’s journey plays out as an ongoing tug-of-war between past and present, guardian angels and internal demons, spiking even its upbeat, inspiring moments with the jaundiced wit and instinctive melancholy that were essential to its subject’s temperament.
That temperament emerged in its most wickedly concentrated form in Callahan’s drawings, one of which supplied the darkly funny title of his 1989 memoir and now this movie. Van Sant sprinkles those inky little cartoons throughout the film, sometimes with animation, demonstrating if never rationalizing Callahan’s impulse to put pen to paper. The film does suggest that in these cherished moments, drawing shakily but assuredly with both hands, he could exert a measure of the physical and mental control that had eluded him for so long.
As he has demonstrated in movies as different as “Two Lovers,” “The Master” and the recent “You Were Never Really Here,” Phoenix has more scowling misfits up his sleeve than any other actor working today. His Callahan is neither an exception nor a retread, and he comes at us in a mercurial jumble of moods and time frames.
We see him early on, already looking a scraggly, orange-haired wreck before his accident, staggering into a Southern California liquor store and boozily chatting up girls on beaches and at parties. The next scene might cut ahead to show him flying down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair, zipping along with defiant speed and purpose until he crashes and falls over, which happens a lot.
Or perhaps he might be navigating the challenges of remaining sexually active despite his disability, in some of the movie’s most winningly humorous asides, or delivering a valedictory speech on a brightly lit Portland stage. But most of the time, we see Callahan attending AA meetings with his comrades in recovery, who gather to share progress updates and puncture the angry bubble of Callahan’s self-pity. (They’re played by a wonderfully eclectic group including Kim Gordon, Udo Kier, Ronnie Adrian, Mark Webber and, most marvelously, the singer-songwriter Beth Ditto.)
Generously holding court at these meetings is Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, a rich, world-weary gay man played by a terrific Jonah Hill, all but unrecognizable with his long hair, thick beard and magnificent wardrobe. The movie doesn’t overdo the comedy of Donnie’s trust-fund Jesus look or his extravagantly marbled estate. It’s hard to overstate the sheer affection Hill pours into this characterization, distilling fey playfulness (he calls the people he sponsors “my piglets”), droll cynicism and soulful intensity into a mix of philosophical wisdom and practical advice. Tough love never felt so palpable.
Therapy can be a tricky, even reductive thing to dramatize, but if the AA scenes run a bit long, Van Sant gives them a vivid open-endedness: Every answer and breakthrough brings with it another question. The director and his cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt adopt a fly-on-the-wall approach, often drifting away from Callahan to zoom in sympathetically on the other faces in the room.
Callahan has reason to feel uniquely burdened, from the shattering impact and lingering trauma of his accident to his inability to forget or forgive the mother who gave him up for adoption. But gradually, he is compelled to stop lashing out and start listening.
Meaningful change rarely transpires in solitude, and “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” bears that out in a series of intimate conversational duets, in which Phoenix’s performance provides a strong if unpredictable anchor. There are two powerful, hard-to-shake sequences with Dexter (an excellent Jack Black), the soused partygoer who’s behind the wheel, with Callahan in the passenger seat, on the night of the accident. Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”) has a few sharp scenes as the no-bull case worker with whom Callahan keeps butting heads. And Rooney Mara drifts a bit too spacily through the proceedings as Annu, a lovely Swedish therapist who embraces Callahan’s body and nurtures his art.
That art, of course, proved extraordinarily divisive. Published in Portland newspapers, Callahan’s cartoons delighted many, but they also incensed readers with their single-panel gags at the expense of Catholics, feminists, lesbians, blind people, and animals, among others. For very different reasons, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” has stirred its own polarizing reception.
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the movie has fostered an important debate over the ethics of casting an able-bodied actor like Phoenix as a quadriplegic, and whether the decision serves to further patronize and marginalize the disabled for the sake of the larger audience’s edification. It’s worth noting that before he died in 2010, Callahan spent years developing the project with Van Sant, with an eye toward having Robin Williams (who died in 2014) play the lead role.
What would the cartoonist himself have thought of the finished movie? It’s a fair question. Callahan was a sworn enemy of what he deemed political correctness, but he also decried “people who presume to speak for the disabled,” something I will avoid doing here. I can’t fault the brilliance of Phoenix’s performance; neither can I deny that it represents a kind of compromise. This flawed, intelligent and weirdly captivating picture might well move and anger audiences in roughly equal measure. I can imagine a less fitting tribute.
‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’
Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and alcohol abuse
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood