It's not your fault. It's not your fault if you don't remember director Gus Van Sant. He's faded into the background since his last successful film, Milk, the Harvey Milk biopic. His most popular film, Good Will Hunting is still referenced to this day by TV shows and maladjusted movie critics alike. That film, like Drugstore Cowboy and Finding Forrester, was a success. The filmmaker has constantly indulged in his experimental/art house leanings in the off seasons with films like Elephant, Last Days, and the big budget why-in-the-hell-are-you-doing-this Psycho remake. He's always balanced those polar opposites of filmmaking.
This time, Van Sant adapts the John Callahan autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot for the screen with the always reliable Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role. I assumed Callahan's first words, spoken from his wheelchair on a stage to a captive audience were to let you know where the film is headed, "The last day I walked, I woke up without a hangover. I was still loaded from drinking the night before."
Much like American Splendor, the 2003 Harvey Pekar biopic, Callahan found an outlet for his sadness and frustration with humanity by drawing cryptic one panel cartoons where cowboys joke that their crippled bandit won't get far on foot while freshly dressed Klan members happily rejoice over their freshly cleaned robes. The film's timeline jumps from the days when Callahan would aimlessly walk the beach asking a beach-goer about Muddy Waters to Callahan drunkenly yelling at his sponsor to the fateful trip that would leave him paralyzed with a random AA meeting as the centerpiece to loosely thread the story.
The film is rife with animated scenes of his comic strips. I loved those. The Alcoholics Anonymous sequences may turn some off with personal aversions to the program. Personally, I found these scenes to be the film's most effective. They're the most truthful and engaging scenes. But for every chunk of good scenes there is one that feels like a missed opportunity that took the schmaltz way out. Case in point: during one scene Callahan, at his lowest point, drops his bottle and pathetically does what he can to get the bottle back in his clutches. Considering it was a key moment in his sobriety, the scene goes by too quickly and is nowhere near as cathartic as it could've been.
All the performances from the supporting cast (Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Carrie Brownstein, and Kim Gordon to name a few) are pretty good. The almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill's performance as Donnie, the AA leader who calls members 'piglets' is pretty kickass too. In fact, his scenes with Joaquin Phoenix are usually the most appealing. Much like his role in this year's You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix is able to embody the character he plays to the point of astonishment. He, like Van Sant, has quietly put out film after film that, even when not great, showcase his talents. Just think back to I'm Still Here, the Casey Affleck faux documentary that followed him as he pulled an Andy Kaufman, the guy commits to whatever role it is from wheelchair bound alcoholic cartoonist or Johnny Cash or lonely hitman or raging asshole.
I liked this film, but I didn't love it. In the end it is a triumph over travails/turn shitty lemons into delicious lemonade story. It's a tale that Van Sant has effectively explored before. It was bittersweet and hilarious at points. We laugh at this scene, we get uncomfortable during that scene, and we marvel at the transcendent parts. There are happy montages of finding new love and sad montages of self-pity. Maybe it comes from watching way too many biopics lately but there were times when the moments of redemption, transcendence, and faith felt too formulaic and tidy, particularly considering the subject's love of gallows humor. Then again, I tend to gravitate to Gus Van Sant's more transgressive stuff, so maybe it was a subconscious yearning to see him get artsy fartsy.
While there are some things in the film that felt like missed opportunities, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, a return to Van Sant's dramatic form, achieves its infectious goals of tenderness and transcendence.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot — Rated R. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, and Rooney Mara.