Callahan’s story in Gus Vant Sant’s Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot is not one of redemption, but one of acceptance; of coming to terms with the insurmountable while recognising the impossibility of changing the past.
Based on John Callahan’s autobiography of the same name, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot follows Callahan’s life from the car accident that left him as a quadriplegic at aged 21, to his sobriety six years later, tracing his progression through the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous along the way. Callahan is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who at 43, is quite an ambitious, if not a little ridiculous, choice for the role. He is helped towards sobriety by his sponsor, Donny, a long-haired Jonah Hill, and his girlfriend Anna, played by Rooney Mara.
Callahan’s narrative is powerful stuff, and while Van Sant imbues the project with an appropriate amount of indie quirk, you get the sense that he’s cautious not to take too many stylistic liberties that might detract from the film’s message. How successful he is in doing so, however, is debatable, as the film tends to find itself meandering towards the absurd and cliché at times which becomes increasingly irritating. This is most noticeably pronounced in the clothing department, with Phoenix brandishing a truly outrageous ‘tangerine’ wig, and Jonah Hill looking like he’s fallen victim to an Oi Polloi sale. Yet, the most frustrating aspect of the film is Van Sant’s presumption that audiences are incapable of interpreting the comedic elements of Callahan’s cartoons. The repeated deciphering of Callahan’s simplistic illustrations does little but patronise.
While redemption might be absent for the characters, the film finds its own during the intimate conversations of Callahan and Donny. The development of this friendship, of two men who’ve come to, as Hill’s character suggests, celebrate ‘mediocrity’, is a humbling process which culminates in their brilliant encounters. Using comedy as a means of broaching existential concerns of life, death, addiction, and acceptance, it’s during these moments that Van Sant exercises the capabilities of these actors perfectly, demonstrating the brilliance of their on-screen chemistry. Sadly, this leads you to the realisation that the rest of the film is little more than an elaborate set up for the cathartic and humanising encounters between these two alcoholics.
These exchanges exhibit the powerlessness of these two characters, not just in the face of their sobriety, but in their mortality and past actions. Despite this, Van Sant manages to embezzle what is essentially existential pessimism with a peculiar sense of hope through their acceptance and companionship. This is essentially the whole premise of the film, using comedy to confront deeper concerns in order to peel back the layers of one’s life, revealing the absurdity of existence. Despite this, the film still manages to extract a sense of hope through the realisation that this absurdity is something not unique, but unanimous, and is shared by all.
This is one of those films that doesn’t necessarily push any boundaries but doesn’t need to. It’s awkward at points, a little weak at others, and has about as much grace as a drunken Phoenix careering down a main road in a wheelchair, yet it still manages to sail along just fine, hitting the desired notes when it has to.