Hardship and Humor: A Look at the Life of Cartoonist John Callahan
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black
Running time 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and alcohol abuse
by Stacey Osbeck
Usually a writer-director feels an obligation to his audience, to deliver on the feel good. With Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot it appears Gus Van Sant felt no responsibility to anyone except the late cartoonist, John Callahan, to tell his story genuinely, which lends itself to a very different moviegoing experience.
John Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is already yoked to the bottle when we meet him. Alcohol is the only fuel that can get him through the day.
One night in the car, a drinking buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), tells him to take the wheel. Callahan drives from the passenger seat as Dexter pukes his liquor out the driver’s side window. The driving and drinking continue until Callahan wakes up in the hospital.
While aprising him of his paralysis, the doctor flippantly refers to him as being among the dying or nearly dying. Callahan gets strapped to one of those wheel mechanical beds that can spin your body upright or laying down without anyone having to touch you.
There doesn’t seem to be much sympathy for the guy who brought this on himself. Ignored, moved around like a piece of furniture and having to listen to doctors inform med students of his condition clinically as if he’s not there, drops him like a stone into a state of despondency. You’d think that anyone who took a career path dealing with the infirmed would bring an upbeat attitude to cheer their patients. However, his physical therapist, Annu (Rooney Mara), appears to be the only one who recognizes this might be part of the job description.
She tells him he’s good looking and asks him how he’s doing. I’m sure she does this with all those she attends to. Regardless it’s the ray of sunshine he desperately needs. Before his encounter with Annu, the only thing he had to keep him going was drinking. For the first time, basic human kindness, not the bottle, acts as a fuel to keep him going.
Outside of the recovery ward, he must adjust to life as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. A profound revelation sets Callahan on the path to get his life in order. He attends AA meetings and joins a 12 Steps program hosted by Donnie (a slimmed down, silk-scarved Jonah Hill). Donnie welcomes a colorful group of misfits into his steeped-in-old-money house. He tries a little too hard to appear wise, reciting sage words from Lao Tzu, when really the best advice he offers these alcoholics is actually his own: drink water.
In drawing strongly from Callahan’s memoir, the 12 Steps acts as an overarching roadmap. Before watching this film I got the general gist of their purpose. But seeing them presented incrementally laid out how each step builds on the one before it and gives people solid tools to craft meaningful lives.
Sobriety brings new awareness and Callahan realizes that he should have always been a gag man, a cartoonist. With limited use of his arms and hands he sets about drawing endlessly until he gets good at it. His cartoons get laughs, get published and, despite some who don’t appreciate his irreverent humor, his popularity and placement in newspapers and magazines grow.
I was unprepared for the level of despair in the beginning of the film, and Van Sant’s choice to jump around in time brought more confusion than clarity. Are we in California now or Oregon? Does drinking a jug of cooking wine in the park indicate he’s fallen off the wagon or did we just make a leap back in time before the AA meetings?
Despite its flaws, the thing I like best about Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is that so often we as audiences are eager to say ‘Yeah bring on the funny’, but we don’t realize or maybe care about the hard journey traversed leading to the humor.
Although not required, it’s not unusual for comedy to spring from misery. Charlie Chaplin experienced a childhood of such destitution during a time when if you couldn’t afford a room you’d sleep in a flophouse: a place where ropes were strung and you’d actually flop your arms over the line and try to sleep that way. It wasn’t a bed but it was enough to keep your head elevated from the floor so rats wouldn’t bite your face in the night. Buster Keaton, Freddie Prinze and even the late Robin Williams, who wanted to play the lead in this movie before he eventually took his own life, all wrestled with demons. Don’t Worry gives a glimpse into the part of the story we rarely see, a fuller picture instead of just the happy ending. For John Callahan, or anyone, to go through such struggle I’d have to hope that, if nothing else, in the end there’s a good laugh.