Gus Van Sant has many modes as a filmmaker, from the avant-garde eeriness of “Elephant” to the sentimentalism of “Milk.” His meandering biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” falls somewhere in the middle, collecting fragments from the life of button-pushing paraplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan to create a likable portrait with minimal narrative. Reteaming with Joaquin Phoenix for the first time since “To Die For,” Van Sant gets an endearing performance out of the actor in depicting his journey from depressed alcoholic to revered public artist, but the movie drifts through potent observations with a casual disinterest in pulling it together.
Van Sant initially wanted the story with Robin Williams attached to play Callahan, and it’s easy to see why: A carrot-topped wiseass who roams around town starting trouble, wearing a mischievous grin when he’s not in a deep funk, Callahan’s hilarious and melancholic at once. Van Sant, who adapted the screenplay from the late Callahan’s memoir, makes the cartoonist’s trajectory clear up front. In the opening minutes, the filmmaker cuts between the wheelchair-bound cartoonist recalling his life story in front of an appreciative local audience, and Callahan sharing the same recollections at an AA meeting. The connection is clear: There’s nothing phony about this successful man, who transformed his various setbacks into a story of self-empowerment.
Van Sant’s fragmentary approach reveals substantial investment in Callahan’s appeal, even as it has a distancing effect by establishing the outcome of his struggles while he’s in the midst of them. It’s a canny bargain on the director’s part, depriving the story of a traditional dramatic arc while foregrounding its remarkable character. To that end, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” displays the confidence of a filmmaker unwilling to stuff the material into more familiar beats. It’s a welcome reminder of his skill after the shocking misfire “Sea of Trees;” even as it fails to coalesce, it retains an intriguing centerpiece with Phoenix as its guide.
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In sharing his life story, Callahan recalls how his mother gave him up for adoption at infancy, and the rejection led to a downward spiral of alcoholism in young adulthood. His pattern of self-destruction culminated in one fateful night, shown in prolonged flashback, when a drunken Callahan meets another sloshed partier (Jack Black, with a Burt Reynolds ‘stache and wiggling eyebrows galore) for a depraved night that culminates in a devastating car crash. Bedridden and virtually alone, Callahan’s forced to hit the pause button on using partying to block out his pain and confront his sorry state. “I just feel like I’m not going to have any future,” he moans.
A series of saviors show up right in time. First there’s Annu (Rooney Mara, blond, accented, and utterly wasted), a Swedish therapist who seems to embrace Callahan’s vulgar charm unquestioned, eventually becoming his lover. Then comes an even greater enigma: Donnie, Callahan’s sponsor, who coaches him to sobriety. A recovering alcoholic himself, Donnie’s an exuberant, gay Christian living off his inherited wealth and played just a few steps shy of caricature by a virtually unrecognizable Jonah Hill.
The scene-stealing actor sometimes feels like the sort of broad caricature found in one of Callahan’s goofy line drawings, but he’s also the only person in Callahan’s life capable of forcing him to confront his problems. Many scenes of Callahan’s struggles, when he confronts various locals about his work or speaks to the ghost of his late mother, strain from heavy-handedness. By contrast, his dynamic with Donnie remains a source of intrigue throughout. As Callahan discovers an outlet for his snarky voice in cartoons, Donnie recognizes the extent to which Callahan uses humor as a defense mechanism — and steadily pushes him to unearth the root cause.
World-class cinematographer Christian Blauvelt tracks these scenes against the backdrop of Portland suburbia with an excellent recurring motif — the image of Callahan speeding through town on his wheelchair, searching for philosophical answers to his frustrations more than any physical destination. Van Sant wisely avoids more obvious dramatic moments, leaving the car crash and one major character’s death off screen, taking cues from Callahan’s version of the events.
Yet even as the movie makes a good case for his artistry, it falls short of exploring its significance aside from the occasional hints. Among his better cartoons: a gag about a man with a Starbucks in his rectum, one of several keen observations about the invasion of corporate branding into the city’s small-town vibe. Yet even as Callahan contends with angry letters, the broader connotations of his iconoclastic vision remains underdeveloped.
Instead, Van Sant relaxes into a loose, meandering approach that celebrates Callahan’s resilience without bringing it into sharper focus. As with “Milk,” the filmmaker captured a community-oriented figure eager to push back against social barriers with a distinctive voice. The backdrop of Reagan-era conservatism giving way to a new generation keen on lashing out suggests that Callahan epitomizes a national mood; the movie just doesn’t have much to say about it.
Still, Phoenix’s rascally performance often steals the show, anyway. Van Sant’s clearly in love with Callahan’s humanity, and at its best, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” salutes his survival tactics with a smirk. The movie falls short of deep insights, but its most prominent qualities — scrappy, ephemeral, a little bit lewd — mirror the chief attributes of Callahan’s endearing work.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It opens May 11, 2018.