While its overly feel-good quality would have likely displeased its real-life subject, Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is a vividly entertaining and terrifically acted portrayal of alcoholic, quadriplegic, colorful and defiant cartoonist John Callahan.
Van Sant, whose credits range from indies like “Elephant” to the more commercial “Milk,” is working conventionally, but not entirely so, in this biopic he adapted from a memoir by Callahan (1951-2010).
Set largely on Van Sant’s home turf of Portland, Ore., the drama energetically shifts around in time, with the results suggesting some of the chaos of Callahan’s life.
An orange-haired Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, who, in 1972, became permanently paralyzed when his spine was severed in an alcohol-related accident.
Years later, we see him attending Alcoholics Anonymous sessions held by his sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill), a rich dude with a Jesus look who calls his group members “my piglets.” Callahan proceeds through the 12-step process, achieving sobriety and learning to forgive those he’s blamed for his misfortunes.
In a pivotal session, Callahan recalls the accident: He was party-hopping with a fellow boozer (Jack Black), who nodded off at the wheel.
At the hospital, Callahan meets angelic physical therapist and eventual girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara).
Eventually, he begins drawing his now-famous shaky-line cartoons, which Van Sant includes throughout the film. People in wheelchairs love his irreverent drawings, which often deal with disability. Others may be less enthusiastic.
This isn’t a hard-hitting or edgy portrait. Van Sant offsets the darker material with excessively feel-good moments — Callahan zipping through the park in his chair with a female companion, for example.
Like Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting,” this is yet another story of a troubled man finding his way out of a dark place with the help of a caring counselor and a good woman. It’s not convincing that Callahan’s well-being is truly at stake.
Yet the movie is vital, with a pleasantly loose-flowing tone and message that art and humor can mend the spirit.
Appearing in a role originally intended for Robin Williams, Phoenix may lack Williams’ comic gift and edge. But he brings Callahan to life as a gripping mess of mixed emotions, conveying the character’s physical and emotional trials.
As Donnie, Hill supplies comedy, but he also accounts for the film’s saddest and most soulful material. A late-inning conversation between Callahan and Donnie is a knockout.
Black, too, does some of his best work here. Mara is stuck with a one-dimensionally written ray-of-sunshine character.
While the film sometimes suggests a commercial for 12-step programs, it contains some of the finest 12-step material in addiction-movie memory. Seemingly minor characters played by Udo Kier, Beth Ditto and others prove essential to Callahan’s recovery as the camera zooms in on their faces and they contribute unique bits to the discussion.
A footnote: During the Q&A session at the movie’s screening in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Van Sant, addressing the issue of representation of people with disabilities in his films, pledged to incorporate an inclusion rider into future projects.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black
Written and directed by: Gus Van Sant
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes