John Callahan was known for his taboo-challenging cartoons, which were published in the Portland, Oregon alternative weekly Willamette Week. The title Gus Van Sant’s Callahan biopic, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, draws on the caption for one of his most famous cartoons (and one of his best, in my opinion), which you can easily locate through an online search. Unfortunately, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is concerned far less with Callahan’s work as a cartoonist than it is about his life as an self-centered asshole. He out starts as a self-centered, asshole drunk, a lifestyle that led to a car accident at age 21 that left him a paraplegic and led to several new chapters in his life: Callahan the self-centered asshole drunk in a wheelchair, Callahan the self-centered asshole in AA, and finally a Callahan the redeemed person who has learned, at least some of the time, to curb his asshole behavior.
Van Sant scrambles the storyline of Don’t Worry to the point where he might as well be handing the audience a jigsaw puzzle and telling them to work it out in the dark. That’s a valid approach to filmmaking, but it doesn’t work for this particular film. For one thing, since Phoenix is more than twice the age of Callahan at the time of his accident, and not much is done to make him look younger when the character is supposed to be, you can’t use the appearance of the principal character as a guide to where you are in the timeline. A related problem is that Callahan’s behavior doesn’t change very much for most of the film, and his moment of redemption comes very late, so most of the film is just variations on his asshole behavior.
There are some really good things in Don’t Worry, but overall the film just doesn’t add up. I’m not sure what happened to the Gus Van Sant that directed films like My Own Private Idaho and Milk, but his genius is seldom obvious in this film. On the positive side, Jonah Hill is amazingly good as Donnie, Callahan’s AA sponsor, so good in fact that you don’t really notice how his performance is because you are so absorbed in the character. Joaquin Phoenix gives a showy performance as Callahan, and reviews are already singing his praises, but his performance always reminds you that he’s acting, and in the process he makes an unlikeable character even more unlikeable.
On the down side, there are some really embarrassing things about Don’t Worry besides the show-off performance of Phoenix. One is the reprehensible way it treats the female characters, as if Van Sant was trying to channel Callahan’s misogyny in his filmmaking. Rooney Mara is a fine actress, but in this film she’s stuck with a cringe-worthy role as a Swedish-accented pixie who is first Callahan’s therapist, then becomes an airline stewardess. Fantasies don’t get more masturbatory than that, unless you count the very unprofessional behavior Callahan elicits from a blonde nurse who is barely even a character.
The one interesting thing about Callahan, as far as I’m concerned, is his creative work. A few of his cartoons are animated in this film, and you can check out more of them on his web site, although prepare to be disappointed: the selection available online the last time I checked were all fairly innocuous, so they don’t really give you an idea of his range. A little web searching can find more, and you can decide for yourself whether or not some of his cartoons are offensive, if so to whom, and if so whether that even matters. No matter what you decide, it’s a better use of time than watching this sad slog of a movie. | Sarah Boslaugh