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Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

July 20, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The latest from director Gus Van Sant, mining similar territory as his Oscar-winning 1997 drama Good Will Hunting, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is based on the life of controversial quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, and much of the story focuses on his struggle to get sober. An alcoholic since the age of thirteen, when he started drinking as a way to cope with being adopted and abandoned by his birth mother, he struggles to give up the alcohol that provides a reprieve from both the emotional and physical pain of his life.

But with the help of his alcoholics anonymous sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), a charismatic hippie who runs a support group made up of other misfits, he slowly starts to overcome his addiction, and finds a new reason for being when he starts to realize his gift for drawing edgy and wonderfully politically incorrect cartoons. These crude drawings, done with the limited mobility he has of his hands, gain him a dedicated following – as well as a somewhat sizeable backlash – after they start getting published in local papers.

Always a chameleon, Joaquin Phoenix disappears into the role of John Callahan. The actor delivers another in a long line of gripping performances here, not only respectfully portraying the physical constraints of the real life subject he is bringing to the screen, but movingly portraying his emotional arc as well. Jonah Hill does equally memorable work in a role that walks the knife’s edge between comedy and drama, and there are a couple of deeply felt scenes between them that provide some of the most emotionally charged moments in the film.

Based on John Callahan’s own autobiography, the film criss-crosses back and forth between different moments in his story, to offer an appropriately scrappy portrait of his somewhat scattered life. The film briefly shows his life before ending up in a wheelchair, and the events leading up to the drunk driving accident with his friend Dexter (Jack Black) that leaves much of his body paralyzed, as well as his burgeoning relationship with Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish physiotherapist whom he meets while recovering in the hospital.

The stylistic choice to edit between all of these different story strands allows the film to play with an irreverent, unpredictable quality that helps capture the offbeat sensibilities and unexpected punchlines that were at the heart of Callahan’s drawings. There is a dark sense of gallows humour running through the film, but Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is also powerfully moving when it needs to be, blind siding us with little moments of incredible honesty and emotion that range from inspiring to heartbreaking.

As Callahan makes his way through the twelve steps, including giving himself over to a higher power, apologizing to those he has hurt, and finally coming to a point where he is able to forgive both himself and others, the film becomes a powerful look at overcoming personal struggles by staring adversity in the face and coming out stronger on the other side. The result is a compelling biopic that’s inspiring without being treacly, and genuinely moving without veering into sentimentality.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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