Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

John Callahan (Joachim Phoenix) led a rudderless life until a car accident, after a night of drinking, left him a quadriplegic. During rehabilitation, and using his two trembling hands, he learns he has a talent to draw. With the help of his girlfriend and rehab sponsor, he forged a new life for himself, championing the disabled their rights in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”

Laura's Review: B+

John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) only knew three things about his birth mother - that she was Irish American, had red hair and was a schoolteacher. But then he'd 'remember' a fourth, that she didn't want him, and this conviction led him to drown his sorrows. After hooking up with the equally alcoholically prone Dexter (Jack Black) at an L.A. party, John suffered horrible injuries when Dexter mistook a light pole for an exit, but the compassion of a volunteer, Annu (Rooney Mara), and the wisdom of unconventional AA mentor Donnie (Jonah Hill) enabled the quadriplegic to find joy in life and the cartoon art which made his name in "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot." Springing back from his largely unreleased Cannes disaster "Sea of Trees," writer/director Gus Van Sant went back to John Callahan's book which he had originally optioned with Robin Williams. Ingeniously structured around one of Callahan's celebrity appearances and Donnie's group therapy sessions, Van Sant uses the cartoonist's soul searching recollections to flash back to the events leading up to John's current predicament and his rehabilitation. Featuring a deeply affecting performance from Jonah Hill and a sympathetic, open-hearted Phoenix, Van Sant's latest is an upbeat celebration of the healing powers of black humor and subversive art. After a particularly destructive alcoholic episode, John's disability aide Tim (Tony Greenhand) brings him to a local Portland AA meeting. Impressed by Donnie's approach, John calls, requesting he be his sponsor. Donnie tells him he already has a full slate of 'piglets,' his term for his sponsees, but instructs John to attend his next personal meeting at his house. In the baroque manse Donnie calls home, John meets piglets Reba (singer Beth Ditto), Corky (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon), Martingale (Ronnie Adrian), Hans (Udo Kier) and Mike (Mark Webber) and immediately gets an attitude readjustment. As Reba tells him 'poor me, poor me will end with pour me another drink.' Earlier, strapped to a bed, his head held within a metal grip, John is rotated to face the floor. A beautiful young Scandinavian woman, Annu, crawls below to engage him, bringing him a bouquet of roses. She is sweetness and light, naturally finding commonalities with the disabled man she tells is very good looking. Back in his apartment outfitted with an electric chair, John rails against Tim, continues to drink, upsetting the glass aquarium holding his only friend, Snickers the mouse. (Snicker's exercise wheel signals both John's new mode of transportation and the endless cycle he is caught in.) But with Donnie's help, John comes to realize the power of forgiveness. Speaking to his own drawing of his mother, Callahan has a spiritual epiphany, visualized by Van Sant with a ghostly hand print on his back and a vision of Maggie Lynch (Mirielle Enos) which gently encourages him to move forward on his own volition. John finally stops drinking and begins to draw. Portland's Vanguard buys one of his panels. Annu reenters his life. John goes through the ninth step of making amends. Although his subject matter goes to some dark places, Van Sant's film accentuates the positive. He uses unique, zoetrope-like sideways sliding and rolling montages of split screen images reflecting John's physical rehabilitation. When John catapults himself into the street when he hits a curb, he's immediately surrounded by a group of kids who not only help him, but become interested in his work. Callahan's cartoons, including the titular one, are highlighted throughout, often animated, and while his perverse sense of humor draws as much ire as admiration, Callahan embraces all reactions. Quadriplegic sex is addressed with good humor. Even during Callahan's worst moments Phoenix keeps us on the man's side with an open disposition. His chair life physicality is convincing, legs folded to one side, his use of hands and arms recalibrated for less mobility. Jonah Hill, sporting long hair and a beard, gives a quiet performance marked with a singular humor, supportive yet disciplined. In Van Sant's adaptation of Callahan's book, Donnie's story streams out gradually as his bond with Callahan grows, the gay man's own struggles reaching an emotional climax in the film's last act. Van Sant's ensemble includes many musicians (Ditto, Gordon, Black), Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein a disability benefits administrator. Heather Mattarazzano cameos as a receptionist. "Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot" is sure to remind folks of "My Left Foot," another true story of a disabled man overcoming odds to become an artist. But while that film dealt more with physical obstacles, this one focuses on the emotional. Grade:

Robin's Review: B+

John Callahan (Joachim Phoenix) led a rudderless life until a car accident, after a night of binge drinking, left him a quadriplegic. During rehabilitation, and using his two trembling hands, he learns he has a talent to draw. With the help of his girlfriend and rehab sponsor, he forged a new life for himself in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Way back, during those days when I actually bought Penthouse magazine, I remember well the funny, satirical and politically incorrect cartoons by John Callahan. His unique, simplistic (or, primitive?) art would often poke fun at the disabled and handicapped and earn the ire of many, though, by Callahan’s own account, also the respect of those he satirizes. It helps when you are the butt of your own jokes. Because of this, he continued his work successfully until his death at 59, Aside from knowing his cartoons (and, appreciating them), I actually knew little of the man, John Callahan. Director and screenwriter Gus Van Sant, with a dynamic performance by Joachim Phoenix, fills that void with a story of the tragic fall of a young man and the birth, from those ashes, of an artist, satirist and unusual champion of disabled rights. Callahan’s story – how he came to be in the car that night when his life changed is done in flashback – is about his coping with his physical condition and his addiction to alcohol. Enter Donnie Green (Jonah Hill) who runs a very tough Alcoholics Anonymous program. This meeting will change John’s life and Jonah Hill is first rate as the complex Donnie. As biopics go, Van Sant does an upper tier job in telling the life of John Callahan and his star embodies the role. I forgot I was watching an actor and became sympathetically involved with the character.