Sundance 2018: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, by David Bax
It’s hard to know how to feel about Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot because it’s never entirely clear how the movie feels about itself, its subject and its themes. That isn’t necessarily a dig but it’s hard to make it sound like a ringing recommendation either. It’s a biopic of comedic cartoonist John Callahan and his recovery from alcoholism after an accident that left him largely paralyzed. It features close-up shots of many of his cartoons, most of which got big laughs from the audience at my screening. Yet I am left unsure whether Van Sant himself thinks they are funny. In a standout scene, Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) passes around one of these panels to some friends and challenges them to tell him why they think it’s funny. The responses vary from half-assed to compassionate to, “It’s not.” Outside of his work, most of Callahan and his friends’ humor is frattish and crude; these are the type of people who finding “yodeling into the canyon” to be a hilarious euphemism for cunnilingus. Van Sant doesn’t seem particularly convinced of the effectiveness of twelve-step programs, either, peppering the meetings with eyerolling aphorisms like the koan that saying “poor me” will eventually lead to saying “pour me another drink.” And yet, despite how off it feels, I can’t say that I didn’t have a good time watching it. For the most part. I guess.
In a fractured, often confusingly nonlinear narrative, Don’t Worry tracks Callahan’s life as an aimless drunk, then a disabled drunk, then an AA devotee, then a successful if controversial cartoonist. Backing up Phoenix is a delightful extended cast including Jack Black as a drinking buddy, Jonah Hill as Callahan’s sponsor, Rooney Mara as some sort of nurse/stewardess/angel/most baffling movie character in recent memory (more on her later) and musicians Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto and the great Kim Gordon in small but crucial roles. With their efforts, the movie is mostly fun to watch even while successfully resisting the trap of romanticizing alcoholism; in fact, it’s often quite an ugly film.
Though cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt kicks things off promisingly with an Altmanesque search-and-zoom shot during an AA meeting, most of the framing feels haphazard and flat, doing little more than containing the necessary action in any given shot. Van Sant extends this low-hanging fruit aesthetic approach to the movie’s biggest groaner sequence, in which Callahan’s rock-bottom is illustrated through a flashback montage. Actually, that’s probably the second most embarrassing part but the less said about Callahan’s reflexogenic erections, the better.
And yet, it’s all still so compelling. Chalk that up, at least partially, to some great character work by, of course, Phoenix but especially Jonah Hill, playing a ludicrous character who’s all flowing Jesus robes and long cigarette holders while somehow remaining the tender heart of the movie. Mara, meanwhile, charms despite her character making no real sense. She is, I suppose, the love interest. But she seems to have little effect on Callahan’s life, she comes and goes at random, she never speaks to any character other than him and he doesn’t seem to talk much about her to anyone else. If this were that kind of movie, I’d suggest she’s a figment of Callahan’s imagination. Then again, it’s not clear just what kind of movie this actually is so maybe it’s one of those, after all.
As Mara spends more and more time offscreen and the group AA meetings turn to one-on-ones with Hill, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot narrows it focus tighter and tighter on Callahan only. It becomes internalized, almost solipsistic. At first glance, this seems like a major mistake for a movie that’s so openly about how Callahan improves himself by learning to rely on other people. But maybe Van Sant is being purposefully ironic. That would be fitting for a movie where he consistently seems to be playing a game no one else knows the rules to. But at least it’s a fun game. For the most part. I guess.