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Based on a true story, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018, Dir. Gus Van Sant) strikes the right balance between inspirational and real, dramatic and irreverent. The film tells the story of John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), a man with a drinking problem, who becomes paralyzed from the waist down after a drunk-driving accident. Callahan eventually finds a reason for life in his newfound passion for creating off-color and subversive cartoons. In the wrong hands, this story could have easily been saccharine or alternatively offensive. Instead, it’s a wonderfully positive and thoughtful examination of difficult issues and underrepresented groups of people. Chock full of big name celebrities and indie deities, the film manages to pull off the difficult task of creating characters and dialogue that actually rise to the level of the talent on screen, helping us to forget these actors’ expansive filmographies and back stories. If you’re looking for a feel good movie that’s smart and that also refuses to take its serious content too seriously, look no further.
The plot of the film is a compelling one, and made all the more so as it’s culled from an actual life. Based off of John Callahan’s autobiography, the film follows his struggles with substance abuse in the 1970s, and how this leads to the catastrophic event of a car accident that leaves him paraplegic. Following this, John continues to drink heavily and obsess over the memory of an absent mother. He eventually finds hope in the surprising care and love of a woman (Roonie Mara) who visits him at the hospital shortly after his accident. Over time, with the encouragement of his new girlfriend, John joins an AA group, and finds a powerful mentor and example in the group’s leader / sponsor (Jonah Hill). Now sober, John pursues, and excels, at a creative hobby – cartooning – which serves as a powerful catalyst for his further engagement with the people around him, and with life in general.
It really is a delight to see each of the well-known stars and personalities in the movie slip into their respective roles and get lost in the world of the film. Joaquin Phoenix does an excellent job in this sensitive role. He plays the character of John Callahan as a real person, not a caricature of his surface attributes. Unlike some of Phoenix’s other roles that have been marked by their pronounced edge and near inscrutability (The Master, I’m Still Here), Callahan’s character, though abrasive and reckless at times, is very relatable. We sympathize with his weaknesses, understand his motivations, and enjoy watching him succeed. Jonah Hill, a first time Director this year with Mid90s, is more and more showing his range in dramatic roles like his character here, Donnie Green, a larger than life AA sponsor who steals some of the film’s funniest and saddest moments. Perhaps the best scenes are those wherein Donnie skillfully reigns in his motley AA group, dolling out encouragement, reprimand, and pithy wisdom with equal gusto. Rooney Mara does a solid job in her relatively small but impactful role as the incredibly sweet and genuine girlfriend, Annu, who seems to come out of nowhere to essentially save John from a downward spiral. Jack Black is, as always, Jack Black. He plays Dexter, John’s friend early in the film, who is driving when they get into the car accident. Black pulls off a particularly difficult scene when he is reunited with John, many years after the car accident, and forced to take an accounting of his life since that time. Kim Gordon is a surprising treat in her minor role as an AA group member. When you see Carrie Brownstein for the first time in the movie, it’s hard to shake off all of the accumulated associations we have of her from innumerable Portlandia characters, but she does a commendable job representing John’s jaded, all-business case worker.
The film explores the impact of disability on John’s life, and the ways in which his disability affects how other people interact with him. When John is in the hospital shortly after the accident, we watch medical students visit him bedside, engaging the facts and figures of his disability, the raw data of his injury, but otherwise ignoring him as a person. Likewise, Brownstein’s case worker is initially only concerned with the ways in which John’s behavior affects the medical equipment he is using, or the public benefits he is accessing. She warns him that the financial success he’s starting to find through his freelance cartooning threatens to impact his public benefits. “Where’d these posters come from?” she asks, marching around his apartment, taking an inventory. At home, we see John’s caretaker (who bathes him and takes care of his day to day needs) neglect him and lash out at him. When John is still drinking, this aide leaves John with a bottle of wine before running out of the house. Thankfully, it’s not all neglect and abuse. We do see John accepted and loved in the film, by his girlfriend, by his friends and sponsor at AA, and finally, by the community at large. As someone who works with clients who have significant physical disabilities and chronic conditions, and who require in home care, I can say that John’s story is all the more inspiring when you consider the dizzying array of obstacles and stressors he, and others in a similar situation as him, face on a day to day basis – constant concerns over the availability and quality of in home care, never ending medical appointments, issues with medical equipment, the strain of fixed incomes and public benefits, Kafka-esque phone calls with providers, insurance companies, and case workers who, often because they themselves are stretched pencil thin, may not always engage the “whole person” on the other end of the phone, and on and on. Amidst all of this, it is miraculous that anyone can find the time or life force to cultivate a hobby or creative interest. For those who do, it is a blessing and clearly provides physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits above and beyond what is available at the pharmacy. John’s story is remarkable in that his creative outlet not only offered him a temporary refuge from his physical pain, but also a means of engagement with the community at large, and ultimately a springboard to fame and financial independence.
Another major topic of the movie is substance abuse, and particularly the dynamics and benefits of peer support groups like AA. The issue of substance abuse – its causes, effects, variations – is getting a lot more serious coverage lately, both in the media and in film (one good recent example being Beautiful Boy, 2018). While the scenes of John getting drunk and making bad decisions (i.e., the visual representation of how substance abuse can derail a life) are nothing new to film, the scenes of his AA group meetings and the exchanges between him and his AA sponsor are refreshing. In these scenes, we see John start to open up and be real with himself, slowly realizing he needs to rewrite the self-destructive narrative he has been living off of for decades. There is relief for John in observing the brutal honesty and lack of artifice within the group, between its members, and particularly as modeled by the group facilitator / sponsor, Donnie. The simple wisdom of AA, and the powerful impact its basic formula has for many, is clearly evident in John’s story.
Callahan’s cartoons do for his friends and readers within the world of the film what the film itself does for us, the audience – undercut the gravity we give to certain “untouchable” subjects or groups of people, ultimately humanizing them. For Callahan, nothing is off limits, including himself. He finds humor in his disability, in other’s sexual orientation, in religion, even in a pair of Klansmen. His modus operandi is to push all of the available buttons, and topple every sacred cow in the room. The result is vulgar and shocking to some, brilliant and refreshing to others. I think his humor is interesting as viewed from the current societal climate, in which many comedians are feeling the pressure of increased vigilance around word choice and language; the role of comedy and the often repeated mantra of comedians (“nothing is off limits”) is definitely being questioned. Against this backdrop, it’s quite amusing to see John Callahan’s story represented in all of its wildly and gleefully inappropriate glory. I personally feel that Callahan, though he was clearly mischievous, was not trying to be malicious or hurt anyone; it seems like he was more interested in shining a light on the absurdities inherent in our shared, inescapably flawed humanity. (But don’t take my word for it, check out the website that curates some of his cartoons / content, and decide for yourself.)
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is that rare kind of movie that delivers on its considerable promise. You’re walking in with a lot of expectations – there’s an Academy Award nominated writer/director at the helm, a truly loaded cast, a Danny Elfman score, and an incredible true story as the source material. And what’s more, it is a true story about a man with a disability, subject matter that can easily be engaged on a surface level for emotional impact without doing the heavy lifting of representing an actual human being. Bravo to all involved for showing up and delivering a delightful film that tells a thoughtful story, engaging to both the brain and the heart.