The late Oregon cartoonist John Callahan’s art reflected his outlook on life — quirky and self-deprecating, yet more bitter than sweet beneath the surface. The heartfelt biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot appropriately adopts the same attitude.
Alternately depressing and optimistic, the latest offbeat character study from director Gus Van Sant (Milk) is a fresh examination of familiar thematic elements involving the perils of alcoholism and the struggle for a fresh start.
John (Joaquin Phoenix) has been drinking since his early teens as a method of masking his hostility toward his family for past wrongs and rationalizing his own aimlessness. It’s only worsened by his twenties, when he becomes a quadriplegic following a one-car wreck in which he was the passenger.
His confinement to a wheelchair provides further incentive for John to continue boozing. When a breaking point finally sends him to AA meetings, he reluctantly assimilates into a group of fellow addicts trying to go straight, including a sponsor (Jonah Hill) whose Zen teachings likewise hide a dark past.
Phoenix’s audacious and powerfully understated performance conveys authenticity during the quieter moments of John’s otherwise predictable path to redemption. He’s not a genial target for sympathy, even when he does pursue sobriety, partially due to his tendency to channel his resentment into excuses.
The most gut-wrenching scene in particular shows John waking up immobilized in the hospital following the accident, taking stock of his past and future through a series of facial expressions and a despairing conversation with a kind-hearted nurse (Rooney Mara).
On a broader scale, the film is an incisive look at coping mechanisms, guilt and forgiveness, the lingering effects of fractured families and absentee parenting, and how the consequences from one unfortunate incident can change lives forever.
The supporting cast also delivers, with Hill again showcasing his versatility while being practically unrecognizable behind a shaggy beard and trimmed-down physique. The film amusingly immerses the audience into the specifics of its setting, even if the jumbled chronology and sometimes frenetic cutting lead to some pacing issues.
Although it feels too heavy-handed at times, Van Sant’s character-driven screenplay — based on Callahan’s memoir — avoids giving John a simple path to catharsis, either physically or emotionally. Fortunately, the respites are more generous for moviegoers.