Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is the latest offering from Gus Van Sant. Based on the autobiography of John Callahan, controversial cartoonist, quadriplegic, and recovering alcoholic, it’s a story that should be rich in content, but often falters from weak character development.
Callahan began drinking at the age of 12, by 21 he was an alcoholic. By 21 he became quadriplegic because of a drunk driving accident. The idea for the film was originally brought to Van Sant from Robin Williams, who had intended to play the Callahan character. Here, it’s Joaquin Phoenix. Minus the fact that Phoenix is supposed to be playing a 21 year old and sports an odd red shaggy wig, his performance is to his usual lofty standards. Callahan’s mix of acidic humor, anger, and demons is made for Phoenix. Indeed, his performance is almost good enough to pull this film together.
Van Sant should also be commended for employing non-linear storytelling. Typically, these biographical films have simple narratives. Either they’re linear, or when they are non-linear, they’re done so through clearly-defined flashbacks. Here, the flashbacks mix. We’re never sure if Callahan is pre-AA, during AA, or post-AA. The effect is wonderful in its manic representation. However, Phoenix and the non-linear narrative aren’t enough to salvage this film. Instead, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is held back by its thin character development.
Rooney Mara as Annu, a Swedish angel-like figure and girlfriend to Callahan, is wasted. The character is purely a one-dimensional inspirational speaker and sex dummy. The only reason for her existence is to demonstrate that a paraplegic can’t be lonely. Callahan appeared to be a person who didn’t hide himself from the truth. Creating a dream girl to fill his every need is the very definition of wish fulfillment and diminishes our view of Callahan rather than enlighten it. That is, why does Callahan need this dream woman? Do “we” need to see him with a Swedish model to see the character as complete? It’s an odd choice. And maybe the character wouldn’t be so troublesome if there was any personality or depth. Instead, from the moment she enters into his hospital room through an open sliding door, she’s an angel. She’s the motherly figure, as she is initially introduced with red hair much like Callahan’s mother, that he’s so lacked.
Unfortunately, the one-dimentionality of these characters doesn’t end with Annu. When Callahan begins attending AA, he does so with Donny (Jonah Hill) and his group of “piglets.” Ironically, the film’s first line is, “Corky tell us your story.” Corky (Kim Gordon), one of the piglets, never gets to tell her story. By film’s end, her character has zero defining qualities other than she looks stern, asks hard questions, and has a weird name. Those traits apply to every one of the piglets, from Reba (Beth Ditto), to Martingale (Ronnie Adrian), Hans (Udo Kier), and Mike (Mark Webber). Their sole characteristics are their looks and mannerisms, but never their story, never the dynamics between each other.
Maybe that would be acceptable, if Donny wasn’t the same way. Short of repeating the mantra of the 12-step program, we know little of Donny outside of the group. He’s the leader of these piglets, but his existence revolves around asking biting questions. In fact, his “one” defining quality, his homosexuality is kept at arm’s length. For the most part, homosexuality is window dressing here. It’s spoken of in a token line or image, but it’s never out in the open. Hill gives a valiant and sometimes triumphant effort with Donny, but there’s not enough there for a fully realized character. The only person who’s given a chance to carve out a niche is Jack Black as Dexter, the friend who drunk drove and crashed the car that Callahan was in, and even that is retained to only 5 minutes of screen time.
The fatal error for Van Sant is his reliance on the method of the 12-step program. The method seems to dominate the film more than the characterization. One feels that half of the references to the specifics of the program could have been cut in favor of deeper character bonds. The film is at its best when it’s showing us, not telling us about alcoholism and recovering from it. The tone throughout the film is loopy, switching from jumpy and jazzy, to somber, to hopeless, and back again. It mirrors the fight against addiction and its up-and-down nature. Van Sant’s film could have done with more of that stylistic form of storytelling. But much like the rest of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, it’s the actors that hold together this admirable, if misguided, attempt at a non-schmaltzy story of a disabled person and their journey of dealing with their present and their future.