We usually save the biopics for the end of the year when Oscar season heats up and actors rush to get their big performances in. Opening away from all them however comes the latest film from Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). Today’s subject is John Callahan, a controversial cartoonist who ticks plenty of the biopic boxes for actor Joaquin Phoenix. He’s got a disability, major character flaw, and tragic childhood. That holy trinity defines every second of the movie and every interaction within.
Callahan’s disability is that he has been confined to a motorized wheelchair following a car crash that occurred following a raucous night out drinking with Jack Black’s character and the only scenes that required an able-bodied actor (the hand doubling is incredibly obvious here for the drawing scenes). That night wasn’t merely one night of poor decisions though as it was symptomatic of his lifetime of alcoholism that he claims is a result of being put up for adoption, a fact that he spends most of the movie whinging about. The film aimlessly jumps around in his life, but mainly focuses on his recovery from his injuries and his overcoming alcoholism through AA.
The recovery has some interesting moments, but they are too spaced out and the film seems more interested in how they pertain to his struggle with drinking than anything else. If you thought AA was insufferable before, this movie is not going to change your mind on that. Jonah Hill plays the leader of the group looking like Donald Sutherland and he’s never been more intolerable than he was here. Everything about him is so peak Californian and he’s full of fortune cookie rhetoric that the movie seems to think is so profound.
The film attempts to work in some of the edgy humor Callahan was known for, but it’s clear they are well out of their depth. It’s all done with kid gloves, the stuff taken directly from his comics standing in stark contrast to Van Sant’s writing and it’s just not funny. It’s also drowned under a tidal wave of treacly melodrama that tries the patience. The music from Danny Elfman only further pushes this tone past the breaking point and just goes for too much, too often.
The film is shot using plenty of handheld cameras which just prove to be distracting and make the film look lousy. There’s an emphasis on facial closeups, all the better for lots of shots where Phoenix looks up slightly with an intense look on his face to indicate this meant to be poignant. There are animated segments done in Callahan’s style that don’t really add much to the film nor are they especially funny. The film making the mistake too often of explaining the joke or showing off the work and then animating that same one.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot wants to mix the sweet and funny with the dark and sad. It wants to be a life-affirming overcoming of obstacles. The problem is, that this is an endless drag of none of those former categories and it is hard to be life-affirming when I don’t care about the lives of any of the people involved. Phoenix is fine at the center, getting no credit from me for playing a quadriplegic, but I have to imagine Callahan deserves a more interesting portrayal than the one he received here (or maybe he doesn’t, I didn’t know him). It does the typical biopic thing of trying to prop it up with “hey it’s that actor”s (Rooney Mara, Mark Webber, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein, Heather Matarazzo, Mirelle Enos) but they do little more than pop up as props, maybe get to speak some folksy wisdom to Callahan. Biopics are an easy genre to make and achieve at least mediocrity, but it’s important to note that is far from a given as evidenced here.