Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios/Anonymous Content/Big Indie Pictures/Iconoclast
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is a work of art about making art. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as cartoonist John Callahan, a troubled alcoholic who is confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. Writer/director Gus Van Sant approaches a heavy subject with a combination of whimsy and sincerity, while a great supporting cast enliven the parties, group Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and rehabilitation wards that Callahan visits, primarily via a very fast motorized wheelchair.
Flying down the street at a clearly unsafe speed, his disheveled orange hair blowing in the wind, we meet Callahan, who is, quite expectedly, pitched from the curb into the street. This is just the first of many painful experiences viewers must witness in “Don’t Worry…,” which is a reference to one of Callahan’s grimly humorous cartoons. In that drawing, a posse observes an overturned wheelchair in the desert and appraises its chances of catching the unseen fugitive.
Based on Callahan’s memoir, which bears the even more ironic title “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?,” this film is the perfect vehicle for Phoenix, who truly is an exciting and unpredictable actor, playing an unlikeable rascal who manages to grow on his own terms. A lot of the film takes place during AA meetings, which gives plenty of screen time to supporting actors such as Jonah Hill as Callahan’s wealthy, effete sponsor. He crudely refers to his sponsees as piglets, but provides some riveting moments in the film and good advice to the characters. It was interesting to see Hill play someone charismatic and in control, and he rose to the occasion.
Jack Black is in good form as Callahan’s partying partner in crime, and the driver during the car accident that cost Callahan so dearly. Forgiving him becomes a very important part of Callahan’s recovery. He also dreams of finding his birth mother, and the portrayal of his longing for her makes him more sympathetic. These are the vulnerable moments that balance the dark humor and physical unpleasantness on the screen.
The sincere portrayal of the 12-step program is somehow unexpected, and many times this story plays it straight when you expect more gallows humor. Van Sant is, after all, the guy who made “Good Will Hunting,” and he seems tuned in to the therapy process.
In fact, this project began when the late Robin Williams bought the rights to Callahan’s memoir to star in himself, with Van Sant as the director. His interest in the film should give you an idea of the tenor of Callahan’s story, a tremulous balance between dark and light. Phoenix is obviously not the comedian Williams was, but in this film, he has a lively, mischievous gleam in his eye, particularly when he is finally sober and his powers of observation play out beautifully across his face and on the page of his cartoons.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is currently available to rent.
The Fairhope Film Festival’s monthly movie is “Red Joan,” starring Judi Dench. On Monday, April 29 at 6 p.m., at the Fairhope Film Festival office on the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Summit Street, experience the story of Joan Stanley, who was exposed as the KGB’s longest-serving British spy. Tickets are $15 and that includes popcorn and liquid refreshment. Make a reservation by calling 251-990-7957. Seating is limited.
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