Joaquin Phoenix stars in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” the true story of controversial Portland cartoonist and folk icon John Callahan. An alcoholic for much of his life, Callahan suffered through a car accident after a night of drunken carousing, an event that left him paralyzed. But as he learns to acclimate to life as a quadriplegic, struggling through both his physical recovery and even more challenging path to sobriety, Callahan finds a new lease on life through his art. We see him learn to use the limited mobility in his hands to create simplistic drawings, infusing his acerbic perspective in these dark humored, often macabre single-panel cartoons.
Phoenix is always an interesting performer, and he’s in mostly fine form here. But writer-director Gus Van Sant (adapting Callahan’s own memoir) opts for a non-linear narrative, jumping back and forth through time with each new scene. The technique admirably avoids creating the kind of neat, too-tidy narrative that can feel disingenuous in these types of stories.
But while experiencing Callahan’s journey as a series of setbacks and triumphs with no clearly defined arc may be more honest, it winds up making the film feel like a series of disconnected scenes. There are certainly touching moments throughout, but being deprived of seeing that cumulative growth keeps us at an emotional distance. Van Sant sacrifices some depth in the process, frustratingly failing to explore crucial details like how or why Callahan turned to cartooning in the first place.
One of the film’s other major throughlines is Callahan’s friendship with his hippie-ish AA sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill). Spouting words of wisdom and tough love, Donnie offers support and guidance through the 12-step program. Hill is an appealing screen presence and has turned in a number of strong performances over the years, but this one-note character isn’t one of them.
We also see Callahan’s romance with Rooney Mara’s Swedish physical therapist, but she doesn’t get much of a part to play beyond the role of supportive girlfriend. Jack Black fares significantly better in a small, two-scene performance as the man who happened to be behind the wheel with Callahan when he mistook a telephone poll for an exit ramp.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” successfully side-steps cliché in its details, but feels like yet another story about the healing power of art and the necessity of humor in the face of suffering. As a story of addiction and disability, it’s fine enough, but ultimately adds up to less than sum of its parts.