On the surface, it sounds like one of those true-life, triumph-over-adversity tearjerkers that Hollywood spoon-feeds folks with numbing frequency. But thankfully, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot approaches the cliff of sentiment without going over the edge. Based on the 1989 memoir by Portland, Oregon cartoonist John Callahan, the film traces what happens when this party-hard, skirt-chasing boozehound is rendered a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic by an alcohol-fueled car accident. His journey from wallowing in despair to becoming a successful satirical cartoonist makes the usual stops at physical therapy sessions and work-the-program meetings, but Joaquin Phoenix and director Gus Van Sant raise the bar when they use roguish humor and bruising pain to color outside the box.
It’s the kind of showoff role that Oscar-hungry stars leap at. Luckily, a real actor got there first. Phoenix, mellow and mischievous, refuses to tidy up Callahan’s disability for mainstream consumption. And Van Sant, reteaming with the star for the first time since 1995’s trenchantly comic To Die For, recovers nicely from a trio of recent missteps (The Sea of Trees, Promised Land, Restless). Don’t Worry is more in the Good Will Hunting mode than, say, the experimentation of Elephant, Gerry or My Own Private Idaho; his eye for the quirks that define character, however, is as sharp as ever.
Callahan, who died at 59 in 2010, had been drinking heavily since his teens and was only 21 at the time of the car accident. His party buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), was driving when their powder-blue VW bug hit a lamppost. The fact that Callahan’s hedonistic partner-in-crime escaped without a scratch initially gnawed at him and it took years of counseling to achieve acceptance. But under the guidance of Donnie (Jonah Hill), his zen-like sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous, our on-the-road-to-recovery antihero finds a way. A word here about Hill: His portrayal of the gay, bearded, caftan-wearing, trust-funded father figure is a marvel of nuanced acting. Could this be the comedy star’s third Oscar nomination, following Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, for showing his dramatic chops? The actor comes up aces, as his gentle, hippie-ish counselor conducts at-home meetings with Donnie’s so-called “piglets,” group members played by the lively likes of German character actor Udo Kier and indie rockers Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto.
The artist finds recovery torture at first, marinating in self-pity and struggling alone in his apartment trying to retrieve a vodka bottle that rolls under the couch. And wait till you see Callahan take to the streets for wheelchair battles that leave him back in the hospital. That’s where he enjoys the tender mercies of Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish volunteer therapist with whom he experiments with sexual techniques that might produce an erection. Van Sant invests these scenes with a freewheeling wildness that throw the film nicely off balance. And yet the director makes sure that everyone from the artist’s fellow AA members to his long-lost drinking buddy never lose their touching humanity. One of the film’s highlights is the scene in which Callahan visits Dexter to offer forgiveness. Watch Black carefully here; his playing of the reconciliation moment is absolutely jaw-dropping.
Still, it’s Callahan’s discovery of cartooning as an outlet for his rage and cutting wit that gives the film its resonant power. (The film’s title is drawn from one of his sketches, which shows a cowboy eying an overturned wheelchair out on the plains.) Clutching a felt-tip pen between his hands, he made art that was crude in technique but powerful in purpose – think William Steig mixing it up with Charles Addams. The man’s work, published in the Oregon newspaper Willamette Week, stirred a love-hate reaction for its political incorrectness. And Phoenix makes you feel the artist’s scrappy joy in sticking it to his critics. Callahan once said, “My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands.” Van Sant lets those ‘toon panels dance into the action to the tune of an ebullient Danny Elfman score – and it’s that kinetic playfulness that rescues the film from formula uplift.