FOUR STARS A biopic about cartoonist John Callahan and his fight with alcoholism, and a wheel chair.
River Phoenix, Jonah Hill
This poignant and frequently funny biopic from Gus Van Sant (MILK) charts the story of John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), who turned his life around after alcoholism landed him in a wheelchair. Though it should be pointed out that giving up booze was the last thing on the mind of this newly minted quadriplegic. Why stop when you’re on to a good thing, right?
DON’T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT is one of Van Sant’s best films and he’s hardly a slouch, with two Oscar nominations behind him. What makes it so is the accessibility he gives his character and his story while cheerfully messing with our expectations. A non-linear time line throws up all sorts of antipathy toward Callahan and the circumstances in which he finds himself, then turns it on the audience given Callahan himself seems to have no particular interest in what we feel about him. Thus Van Sant with the help of a charismatic Phoenix is free to invest the film with a wit and playfulness not normally found in these kinds of films (the essence of the story is hardly new).
But we’re jumping ahead, or behind, depending on where you are on Callahan’s timeline. In short, he’s a troubled young man whose addiction leads him on a drunken car ride that ends badly. He ends up in a wheel chair, keeps drinking, meets his future girlfriend and, eventually, a charismatic sponsor (Jonah Hill) when he finally chooses to dry out. With newfound mental and emotional clarity, he reconnects with drawing to become a celebrated cartoonist.
As mentioned, these kinds of fall-and-rise chronicles are hardly new. What gives DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT its edge rests in the title: a self-deprecating sense of humour that permeates everything Callahan is and does. It’s exploited with great finesse by Van Sant and his use of shifting timelines that keeps the audience on its toes: when Callahan first falls head long out of his wheelchair it plays for sympathy, we assume he’s drunk. When the moment is revisited later in the film, it’s played for laughs. Callahan forgot to do up his seatbelt. It’s a device that plays out time and again without ever out-staying its welcome; revealing different aspects of the man’s story as they coalesce into a pleasing whole.
Solid support from Rooney Mara and Jack Black give Phoenix room to shine but the revelation is Jonah Hill. Playing against type, he’s simply magnetic in the kind of performance that throws open the doors of possibility on a re-energised career. Expect to see him appear alongside Van Sant in next year’s Oscars line up.
Although DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT is a kind of Oscar bait, it’s the kind that speaks with purpose about an illness that needs talking about. For that alone it should be celebrated.