Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is an empathetic and unconventional biopic

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is named after the punchline of one of John Callahan’s most famous cartoons. The single-panel doodle shows a handful of cowboys, presumably a search party, having come across an empty wheelchair. “Don’t worry, he wont get far on foot,” remarks the leader of the pack. Pretty clever stuff on a surface level, but when you understand the story of Callahan’s personal struggle, it becomes clear that what he’s saying is so much deeper than just a goof, even if he himself might reject such a notion. Gus van Sant, a filmmaker not unfamiliar with the unconventional biopic, or the subject of marginalized cultures has presented Callahan’s tale with such grace and dignity, that it’s hard to feel off-put by the film’s leisurely pace.

At the age of twenty-one, long-time alcoholic John Callahan found himself paralyzed from a horrifying car wreck, leaving him immobile from the chest down, with limited use of his arms and hands. The picture opens after all of that, intercutting between three instances in which Callahan is tasked with telling his life story. One is to a large, adoring crowd, another to an addiction recovery group. The third is as narrator of the film. Throughout the film we see this story being told repeatedly by Callahan, sometimes to engage an audience, other times to draw sympathy from those around him. A few times he even uses it as a way to flirt with women. And it starts the same way every time: “I only know three things about my mom; she was Irish-American, she was a schoolteacher, and she had red hair… oh yeah, and she didn’t want me, so that’s four things.” It’s a charming, if tragic punchline to his introduction that, although being employed for laughs, is the key to a lot of Callahan’s struggles. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is the story of him figuring this out. 

To those not in the know, John Callahan rose to relative stardom as a result of his work as a cartoonist. After being restricted to a wheelchair, he found that cartooning was a great way to express himself. Eventually, his single-panel illustrations found publication at a variety of outlets. Due to the non-PC subject matter of many of them, his work was equally lauded and condemned. Some found his simplistic drawing style and his commentaries on the human condition to be stark and refreshing, while others found them to be offensive and puerile. No matter. Expression is the name of the game, and if this film has an angle, it’s in depicting how Callahan’s sudden limitation drew his abilities into focus, and not so much about his commercial successes as a artist. So to call this a biopic would be to betray the term, at least in a classic sense. This isn’t a chronological log of Callahan’s life events from birth through death. If anything, the proper term would be to call it an addiction memoir.

It’s through this restructuring of the typical biopic that van Sant, who adapted Callahan’s novel of the same name, is able to make a pretty basic story feel fresh. On a macro-level, the narrative jumps around enough – tying scenes not through chronology, but through dramatic weight – that the minimal nature of the pieces is mitigated by the emotion. On a micro-level, there’s some very creative filmmaking going on. Be it a slow zoom on a background player to add colorful set-dressing to a moment, a multi-directional screen-wipe montage, or even just a well-framed pratfall, what could easily be a hangout movie is given some visual pop. It’s not easy to capture both the comedy and the tragedy of something as thoroughly destructive as addiction, but van Sant, with the help of an excellent cast, pulls it off in a way that can only be described as admirable. In a way, it’s this same juxtaposition of tone that fuels Callahan’s cartoon work. Sure, it’s funny that the cowboys will catch their handicapped mark as he crawls through the deserts, but it’s important to remember that a handicapped man is indeed crawling through the desert. 

Joaquin Phoenix, consistently the most interesting leading man in hollywood, is phenomenal as Callahan. At this point it goes without saying. Has Phoenix ever phoned a role in? If he has, I haven’t seen it, and I don’t want to. His Callahan is lovable, despicable, pitiable, and engaging all at once, as I imagine the real man was. With his red mop top and his inclination to zip around on his motor chair at incredibly high speeds, Phoenix brings such life to this troubled man that the actor is completely dissolved into character. Same goes for Jonah Hill, who puts on an incredibly empathetic performance as Donnie, a homosexual recovering alcoholic who has taken it upon himself to lead Callahan’s main support group, eventually opting to become his sponsor. The script doesn’t dig too deeply into Donnie’s background short of some expository dialogue toward the end, but Hill does the heavy lifting nonetheless. It’s a remarkable performance from a consistently underrated actor. Not only has Hill shed his former image of a schlubby goofball, but he has proven himself through a series of challenging roles that he is an acting force to be reckoned with. Rooney Mara, as Annu, the nurse who eventually steals Callahan’s heart, feels transplanted from the classic biopic which this movie isn’t. As such, she is given little to do, which is a shame considering how well she does it. Of course, this is to be expected since this isn’t a tale about Callahan falling in love so much as it’s about is ability to let love into his life. Still, it would’ve been nice to see more of her. She’s the best.

And of course I must mention Jack Black. He plays Dexter, the drunken fool who crashes the car which sets off this whole chain of events. He’s a minor character, but it’s a distinct joy watching he and Phoenix drunkenly galavanting through the town together. My god they are so funny, even knowing that their chance meeting would end in unimaginable tragedy. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Jack Black is one of the greats. 

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Get Far on Foot is a solid effort from a solid filmmaker with a solid cast telling a solid story. No, there will not be Oscars here (although they wouldn’t be undeserved, at least in the acting category), but one gets the sense that this film isn’t gunning for awards love. This is a very empathetic film about a truly interesting character in American culture. It honors its subject without diluting his dark side, while keeping things entertaining and thought provoking. Not every biopic has to be an explosion of drama, and frankly, I wish more of them were like this. 

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Get Far on Foot opens in Philly theaters today.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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