John Callahan was an American cartoonist who often dealt with macabre and off-putting subject matter, usually as a means to cope with his disabilities, having become partially paralyzed in a drunk driving accident at the age of 21. The title of his memoir – which is also the title of the film – is itself a punchline from one of his comic cells, where a group of western lawmen come across an empty wheelchair in the middle of the desert. The memoir was originally optioned by the late Robin Williams, a man who knew better than most the ways in which humor can help people cope with trauma. Now, eight years after Callahan’s death, and nearly four years after Williams’, we have the product of the lengthy adaptation process with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, written and directed by the always insightful Gus Van Sant (Callahan himself gets a story credit and Williams gets a special thanks). The film debuted at Sundance, and has now been given its wide release.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, who at times looks like a young, strung-out version of Jimmy Buffet, and at other times looks like a younger version of Van Sant himself, but not ever really like Callahan, though that’s not necessarily a requirement. The film begins with John telling the story of how he became paralyzed in three different settings: a small group therapy session, an auditorium where he’s accepting an award, and a third sequence that is the actual reenactment of “the last day that [he] walked.” In all forms – able-bodied, disabled, and hospital-bound – he’s relentlessly charming, with a rapier wit. It’s amazing that he never thought about becoming a cartoonist before his accident. Phoenix isn’t as good here as he was in You Were Never Really Here, but he’s still at the top of his game, and if nothing else, he should get a special Oscar for “Best Lead Performances in Films with Insanely Long Names.”
John lost the use of most of his body in a car accident on a day where he was drinking heavily and went to a party, meeting a man named Dexter (Jack Black playing Jack Black Classic). They leave the party and go to a strip club, where they get even more wasted, before finally heading to another party that Dexter had suggested. On the way, Dexter falls asleep behind the wheel, and the car hits a pole going 90 MPH. Dexter walks away with a few scrapes, while John is paralyzed from the waist down, along with a loss of movement along his left side.
This leaves John in an understandably distraught state, until two important people come into his life. The first is Donnie Green, a sort of hip, cool, laid back Alcoholics Anonymous counselor played by Jonah Hill, looking like Jesus Christ ate a Bee Gee. John decides to join his small support group and look to Donnie as a sponsor. The two have great chemistry together, and an instant rapport from a character standpoint.
The other is Annu, played by Rooney Mara. Annu is assigned to John in the hospital as a sort of grief counselor and emotional support while he’s recovering. Down the road, the two enter into a romantic relationship whenever Annu is in town (she’s Swedish, and eventually gets a job with Air Scandinvia).
This of course raises the question as to which influence means more to John’s recovery. Is it the counseling of a realist, but still somewhat dismissive friend? Or is it just the fact that Rooney Mara’s vagina has magic healing powers? I know what I would pick…
Overall, the performances are very good, both in the leads and the supporting group, including a delightful turn from blues singer Beth Ditto as part of Donnie’s therapy club. And as usual, the introspective themes that are all but trademarks for Gus Van Sant are on full display, making for a relatively enjoyable experience.
There are two major problems I have, one related to story, and the other to technical choices. On the technical side, the editing is a bit off throughout the proceedings. Similar to other Van Sant classics like My Own Private Idaho, the plot is basically edited in a stream-of-consciousness style, where any one tangent can flow into a completely different, barely related plot thread, before finally reaching the end of that thought and doubling back to the original point. This is established early on with the cuts back and forth as John tells his stories, but it’s still jarring from an audience perspective. There’s a scene where John is speeding down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair and takes a spill off the curb. It’s a shocking, emotional moment, especially when a group of skateboarders comes and helps him back into the chair. When they spy his drawings, they become interested in him, and that launches us into yet another tangent before we can emotionally recover from the fall.
There are a lot of other little moments where the editing feels off. On two occasions we get these sort of “recap montages” that flow from one scene to the other with a sideways wipe, as if each individual shot is on a film strip. There’s also an early scene where John describes buying booze while on the clock on the day of his accident. He mentions that the cashier “could see by my shaking hands that I was already drunk.” Now, the problem here is that as he’s saying this, we can’t see his hands in the shot; they’re obscured by the cashier. In the first shot afterward where Phoenix’s hands are visible, they are very clearly NOT shaking. It’s little touches like that which pull me out of the film at points, especially when this film is ostensibly about a famous cartoonist, but never actually gets to the genesis of his drawing and artistry until the third act (which is important, especially since Callahan had to balance his pen in a very specific way in order to draw at all).
The other main problem I have is with Donnie’s character, and really, 12-step programs as a whole. As cool and chill as Donnie is, he’s often dismissive of John’s needs when they might require Donnie to put aside his own selfish wants. He’ll patronize John with platitudes about the steps and “drinking water” in an effort to get off the phone as quickly as possible. In group, he encourages the others to ridicule John and mock his pain if he dares to feel sorry for himself. There’s a telling scene where John vents about his social worker denying him coverage for some stupid bureaucratic reason, and Donnie and the others basically browbeat him (quietly and subtly, but still) until he admits the only one at fault for anything happening to him is John himself, for getting drunk on that fateful night.
And it all goes back to the central tenet of 12-step programs, the requirement that you “recognize a power higher than yourself” and “turn your life over to that higher power so that it can help you.” Now, Donnie is a fun character, particularly the pet names he gives to things, like “Piglets” for his group, and “Chuckie” as a placeholder for Jesus. He even accepts John’s joke of “Raquel Welch’s private parts” as his “higher power.” But in the end, it’s still about the asses in the pews. Donnie is not willing to “help” John until he does what the program wants him to do, and that’s become religious. Donnie even admits that it’s hard to “teach faith,” which is a positive step (especially given that his character is gay, and therefore has likely been shunned by some establishment religions in this 1980s time frame), but that doesn’t excuse the forced proselytizing in order to get help. Given the humor behind John’s comics, it seems detrimental to the overall message for this to be the conduit for his recovery. Again, this is more a plot/thematic beat that rubs me the wrong way, and isn’t necessary wrong or inaccurate to Callahan’s story, but it feels bad nonetheless.
Still, this is an enjoyable film, filled with heart, humor, and Rooney Mara having an orgasm. It’s worth a look if you need an indie palate cleanser after the summer blockbuster onslaught, and it might land some prestige consideration by the end of the year. It’s flawed, but it’s funny, and while the stream-of-consciousness can be as dizzying as spinning around on an electric wheelchair, you won’t tip over as hard as Callahan does.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite comic strip? What’s the most absurd long title you’ve ever heard of for a film? Let me know!