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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Joaquin Phoenix stars in this unconventional biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan.
By Sarah Ward
September 27, 2018
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Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Joaquin Phoenix stars in this unconventional biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan.
By Sarah Ward
September 27, 2018
  shares

So far in 2018, Joaquin Phoenix has played a down-to-earth Jesus in Mary Magdalene and a hammer-wielding hitman in You Were Never Really Here. At present, the always-fascinating actor is filming his first comic book movie, stepping into the shoes of the Joker. Although it mightn't initially seem like it, his role in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot falls somewhere in the middle of all three. Here, he plays a man who's reaching out to the masses in a chaotic, often confrontational, sometimes self-sabotaging manner, while realising the importance of connecting more intimately.

A biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan, the movie's title comes not only from the artist's memoir, but from one of his sketched pieces: a black-and-white drawing depicting three cowboys on horseback, all standing next to an empty wheelchair. As the caption notes, it swiftly dawns on the crusading posse that the chair's occupant can't have strayed very far. Typically self-deprecating, the picture speaks volumes about Callahan and his ability to see humour in even the most unlikely and difficult of situations. As Gus Van Sant's unconventional film shows, Callahan is making light of his own reality, both as a quadriplegic tragically paralysed at the age of 21 after a drunken car accident, and as a cartoonist who frequently courted controversy with his irreverent work.

Portrayed as outwardly carefree but inwardly tormented by the reliably stellar Phoenix, Callahan takes quite the journey in Van Sant's movie. As the film's moniker makes plain, he's often venturing emotionally rather than physically — stuck in a hospital bed, and later in the wheelchair that he hates. Before his accident at the hands of an inebriated pal (Jack Black), Callahan liked a drink more than anything else in the world, with alcohol his only real motivation to get out of bed each day. Afterwards, he struggles to accept his injury and confront his addiction, seeking help from his sponsor (a bearded Jonah Hill, who is similarly excellent) and his physical therapist (Rooney Mara). He also finds solace in cartooning, turning his new hobby into a nearly three-decade career with his local newspaper.

Callahan passed away in 2010, and if the above description of his life sounds eventful but straightforward, seeing it onscreen dispels that notion. Attempting to capture its protagonist not just in story but also in style, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot also takes quite the journey. Reteaming with Phoenix 23 years after the pair collaborated on To Die For, Van Sant jumps back and forth between different aspects of Callahan's experiences. The filmmaker unravels wisdom, conflict and harsh truths in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which give the film a loose structure, and he doesn't necessarily focus on the details that audiences might expect. The result is a sincere yet never sentimental movie that endeavours to provide a sense of its subject — including his careening, freewheeling ways — rather than adhere to the standard biographical format.

That said, for all of its apparent desire to capture Callahan's essence, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot proves intriguing but not always completely compelling. The film's restlessness clearly reflects the internal state of its protagonist, as it's designed to, yet it also comes across as somewhat awkward and superficial. Van Sant seems like he desperately wants to show rather than tell, but even with his almost erratic approach to conveying Callahan's tale, it never feels as though he's delving as deeply as he could be. And while the veteran writer-director assembles an impressive cast that also includes Carrie Brownstein, Udo Kier, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and singer Beth Ditto, everyone except Phoenix and Hill is sorely wasted — and not in the fashion that Callahan would've once preferred.

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