Friday, August 3, 2018

Tough as Nails: Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan in Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is indisputably the best film title of the year. It’s a caption from a cartoon by John Callahan, the subject of Gus Van Sant’s film and the author of the book on which his screenplay is based. Callahan (Phoenix) was a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident when he was twenty-one and bar-hopping with a fellow alcoholic; it took him another half-dozen years to get sober. His career as a cartoonist took off when The Willamette Week in his native Portland, Oregon began to publish him in 1983; it was his home base until he died in 2010. His distinct line-drawing style (small, scrunched, deceptively simple-appearing) was dictated by his physical restrictions, while his trademark humor (bleak, sardonic, taboo-breaking) – which won him a phalanx of fans and a steady group of offended outliers – was forged by a combination of his personality and his response to the cards he’d been dealt. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is one of the most unusual triumph-of-the-spirit movies ever made: the chronology is fractured, it’s peppered with unexpected visual choices (skewed perspective, a montage cut to look like a clip of celluloid frames or a live-action comic strip viewed vertically rather than horizontally), the style of the performances is so radically naturalistic that they feel improvised, it’s often scabrously funny, and most of it is vigorously unsentimental. Van Sant hasn’t made anything this good – or this inventive – since he broke through with Drugstore Cowboy nearly three decades ago. It’s also a return to form for Phoenix, who does his finest work since Two Lovers in 2008. (Phoenix’s last movie, the wretched You Were Never Really Here, had maybe the worst title of any picture released so far in 2018.)

John’s love affair with alcohol began at twelve; he explains it as his way of coping with the fact that his mother abandoned him after he was born. (As an adult, he looks for her without success because she terminated contact with the adoption agency, though he does manage to find out her name. In one scene, he envisions her as a drawing on his wall that comes to life; she’s played by an uncredited Mireille Enos, the star of TV’s The Killing.) His struggle with booze after his accident overlaps with his struggle with self-pity: when he’s visited in the hospital by a volunteer, a Swedish √©miger√© named Annu (Rooney Mara) whom he later becomes romantically involved with, he focuses on his misfortune, not on taking responsibility for it; if he did, of course, he’d have to stop drinking. Here Phoenix draws on his uncanny talent for depicting the unformed, child-like quality in many adult men, and the tight, high, breathless quality he gets in his voice conveys the pressure the accident has put on his diaphragm while it gives him a whiny vocal affect that comments on the character. 

When John gets out of the hospital his refusal to take charge of his own life, to stop feeling sorry for himself and go on the wagon, makes him behave like a vile-tempered adolescent, cursing at his fed-up caregiver, Tim (Tony Greenhand) and throwing tantrums when he runs out of liquor. He uses his resources to devise ways to overcome his physical limitations so that he can keep drinking easily, but in one scene he drops a vodka bottle and it rolls under a chair, and the only other one is on a shelf too high for him to reach from his wheelchair. (Van Sant may have been thinking of the famous scene in Days of Wine and Roses where Jack Lemmon tears his greenhouse apart looking in vain for a bottle he’s sure he hid there.)

Phoenix and Jonah Hill. (Photo: Scott Patrick Green)

When John finally starts showing up at AA meetings, he’s temperamentally drawn to Donnie (Jonah Hill), a gay man with a flamboyant physical style, a wry and off-the-wall sense of humor, and an unblinking, uncensored approach to the world; he asks him to be his sponsor. Donnie, who’s independently wealthy, hosts private group sessions at his home for the people he sponsors; he calls them “piglets” because, he explains to John, piglets are sad, terrified little creatures that are sometimes miraculously capable of facing their fears. Long, straight blonde hair streaming over his shoulders, a cigarette clamped in a holder, Hill is almost unrecognizable in this part, and he gives a sensational performance. This guy is full of surprises: I had no idea he could act at all until he broke through in Moneyball in 2011, but here he doesn’t just give a performance – he inhabits a character so far from the flabby, nerdy kids that were his stock in trade for years that he’s practically reborn as an actor. Donnie dispenses a blend of AA mottos and Buddhist koans (he makes John read Lao Tzu), and his approach to the twelve steps is idiosyncratic; he calls his own version of a higher power Chucky, after the monster doll in the Child’s Play movies, because it’s unpredictable. With his “piglets,” his tone is world-weary and sometimes condescending, but they respond to the way he kicks their asses and doesn’t let them get away with anything. That’s the approach they’ve learned to adopt with each other, too. When John appears at his first group session, Donnie puts him on the spot and makes him talk about his drinking; he talks about being an orphan and they laugh at him. “You’re right on schedule,” overweight, bespectacled Reba (Beth Ditto) tells him; they knew he was going to haul out that old excuse. And when he gets pissed and points out that his physical condition does mark him as especially cursed, they laugh even harder. It’s the first time anyone confronts him with his own role in the accident that put him in a wheelchair for life – because he was too drunk not to have more common sense than to get into a car driven by someone else who was just as plastered as he was. These group sessions are marvelous – hilarious and tough as nails. I loved the crew of actors: as well as Hill and Ditto, there are Ronnie Adrian as the gay black poet, Martingale; Mark Webber as the misogynistic Mike; Kim Gordon as the elegant Corky; and Udo Kier as Hans, the German – and Greenhand is also on hand as clumsy but indispensable Tim). They’re the tonic at the core of the movie.

Phoenix gets to show real emotional range in this picture – including his talent for raucous, wild-card humor. He and Van Sant work beautifully together. It’s a joyously (and sometimes painfully) spontaneous performance – nothing in it feels like it was worked out beforehand. The scenes where he listens to a variety of reactions to his cartoons are like blackout sketches. Rooney Mara’s character, though, seems to diminish her: she’s focused on her Swedish accent and her Scandinavian understatement, and not much of interest seeps through all that concentration (including humor). And I think the movie goes wet and slack in the section where John reaches step nine in AA and sets about making amends to the people he thinks he needs to apologize to – including Dexter (Jack Black), who caused the accident that turned him into a paraplegic. Dexter admits that his life has been a disaster; he weeps and moans. It’s the worst use of Black in any movie I’ve ever seen him in. And the final scene between John and Donnie, who’s dying of AIDS, is a mistake too, despite Hill’s superb, precise acting. Van Sant has a weakness for this kind of sentimentality, but you don’t expect him to indulge it in a movie that’s exposed the liability of sentimentality for people who have suffered as John Callahan has and who are fighting the refuge of the bottle. The problem seems to be that Van Sant has a problem making a distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. When he’s dry-eyed and funny, cynical and outrageous, he’s trustworthy as a filmmaker. And for almost all of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot that’s where he is.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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