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

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
"It's hard to be tough on a film as warm-hearted as this one is in spirit - like Callahan, it's trying hard even when it fails." | Photo: Amazon Content Services LLC/Scott Patrick Green

Don't worry if you don't know anything about John Callahan before going to see this movie. Beyond the basics, I didn't but I came out the other side of Gus Van Sant's latest feeling that I had something of the measure of the cartoonist on the inside even if the whens and hows of his life are in limited supply. Perhaps it's even and advantage not to be a Callahan fan going in, as that allows you to be fully immersed in Joaquin Phoenix's fine interpretation.

What's interesting about Van Sant's engaging if sprawling film about the quadriplegic cartoonist - whose work is animated here to give you a sense of the take-no-prisoners satire for which he was famous - is the things it doesn't concern itself with. The film ends long before Callahan's death in 2010 and although the accident that led to his disability is included - offering Jack Black a by turns funny and deadly serious cameo - this is not a film that lingers on physical limitations.

Copy picture

In fact, there's a welcome joie de vivre about the way Callahan is depicted using his wheelchair - often giving people rides of zooming around town in it, although it is also an indicator of his worryingly cavalier attitude to risk. The crux of the film - based on Callahan's memoir - is his long-standing fight with alcoholism and his ultimate embrace of the 12-step programme. Why Van Sant chooses to present what is otherwise a straightforward biopic in fragmented fashion is anyone's guess. It's a decision that feels more like a personal challenge for the director than a necessity and all too often becomes a distraction from the film's more enjoyable moments.

Keeping the action just about on the rails are repeated visits to Callahan's AA meetings, which are populated by a lovingly crafted gaggle of characters, with the standout the no-nonsense Reba (Beth Ditto, spot on in a role that ought to lead to more). Here, under the watchful eye of their hippy-esque sponsor (Jonah Hill), they have no time for Callahan's self-pity, offering sobering observations in more ways than one. Hill is the standout as the laidback but straight-talking Donnie - "Today I celebrate mediocritiy," he declares - almost unrecognisable under acres of beard, he becomes the equivalent of Callahan's own personal Jesus. His characters' revelations are every bit as interesting as those of the cartoonist and, in the acting stakes, Hill matches Phoenix beat for beat.

At the other end of the achievement scale lie interludes involving Rooney Mara's therapist/girlfriend Annu, who is dropped in the story with virtually no introduction and left to flounder, seeming barely any more real than the apparition of Callahan's mum that appears mid-film. Still, it's hard to be tough on a film as warm-hearted in spirit as this - like Callahan, it's trying hard even when it fails.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2018
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Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot packshot
Portrait of cartoonist John Callahan and his battle with alcoholism.


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