***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!***
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT: Skip it in the theatre (unless you have MoviePass) but due to terrific acting you should see it on cable or Netflix.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, written and directed by Gus Van Sant, is a dramedy bio-pic based upon the memoir of the same name by quadriplegic cartoonist and recovering alcoholic John Callahan. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, with supporting turns from Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black.
I have been to rehab more times than I can even remember...maybe it's because I was in a booze-fueled blackout during those years...who knows? The thing that I do remember from my various rehab stints was that at every single one of them they were so bereft of ideas on how to help us degenerate drunken sons of bitches that they would always, at some point, resort to having us watch a movie. The movie they ALWAYS showed at every single rehab was the 1988 film Clean and Sober starring Michael Keaton.
The showing of Clean and Sober was preceded by comments from counselors as to what a "great movie" it was...which only further undermined my trust in them. Clean and Sober is a decent enough teaching tool for a rehab...but it sure as hell is not a "great" movie.
I thought of my seemingly endless rehab days often as I watched Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, and couldn't help but wonder if this film could morph into the new cinematic entertainment/teaching tool for rehabs across the country.
You never know what you're going to get with director Gus Van Sant. Sometimes he rolls out a total impressionistic arthouse piece of cinema (Elephant) and other times he'll give you a rather solid but conventional movie tinged with some arthouse flair (Milk, Good Will Hunting). With Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, he falls decidedly into the former category, as the film is a surprisingly standard and conventional "sobriety" bio-pic.
Van Sant does mess around with some less than linear storytelling, but that only confuses matters, as it is at times hard to tell where Callahan is in his recovery or non-recovery as the case may be.
As a recovery story the film works but for all the wrong reasons, namely the incoherent timeline mimics the confusion inherent in addiction, but also makes for a discombobulating cinematic experience. It is frustrating to the point of infuriating watching Callahan consistently get in his own way and stumble and stagger his way from bar to bar and AA meeting to AA meeting and back again and not knowing if we are in "real time" or a flashback or flash forward.
The cycle of alcoholism and addiction is highlighted in a cartoon by John Callahan which shows the evolutionary scale from an amoeba in a swamp all the way up to a man accepting an award at a podium. Watching someone on screen so convincingly go through that heart breaking, gut wrenching and shame-filled struggle from the drunken swamp creature to the victorious award winner is uncomfortable for anyone like me who has made a similarly arduous journey.
In this context, Van Sant's less than coherent narrative is effective in relaying the psychological and spiritual vertigo that accompanies addiction, which is like a hall of funhouse mirrors where up is down, left is right and right is wrong. It is a horrifying and soul crushing experience to endure (and for loved one's of the afflicted to endure as well) the climb up and then falling back down of Callahan's evolutionary scale. The climb to sobriety is much like Christ's gauntlet to his own crucifixion, but at least Christ had the benefit of a clear path to Golgotha where he wasn't constantly taking one step forward and two steps back.
John Callahan's struggle for sobriety is doubly difficult because of how painful and hopeless his unique situation is in regards to his spinal injury. Being unable to literally run away from his demons is an added burden that makes his climb all the steeper and also gives him a built in self-pitying excuse. Addicts love to self-pity and embrace the victim archetype...whining "poor me, poor me, poor me...pour me another drink". Callahan's victimhood is valid, but that doesn't make it useful in trying to ease and transform his feelings of emotional myopia, abandonment, betrayal, self-loathing and rage that can strangle recovery in its cradle.
I don't know if Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot will be embraced by rehabs in the coming years as it is a little too realistic in showing how sobriety is a series of very small victories floating in an ocean of abysmal failures. That cold, hard reality might be too much for the newly sober to grapple with in such a fragile and delicate stage of their very long journey up and out of the muddy pit of addiction and onto the terra firma of an "ordinary" life.
As far as the particulars go, the film is definitely elevated above the likes of Clean and Sober because it boasts two top notch performances, one from lead Joaquin Phoenix, who I believe is the best actor in film today, and Jonah Hill, who plays sobriety guru Donnie Green.
Phoenix's Callahan has a festering wound eating away at his soul that is only heightened when he (literally) cannot run away from it any longer. Phoenix is a combustible talent, but his skill and mastery of craft is equal to his prodigious talents, and watching him imprisoned in a motionless body for two hours is a masterclass. At once charming and infuriating, self-destructive, self-absorbed, self-pitying and yet always magnetically compelling, Phoenix does Callahan justice by pulling no punches in his complex portrayal of him. .
Phoenix uses his breath to great effect to simulate Callahan's sensation of suffocating as his body struggles simply to inhale and exhale as he is born again in a useless body. He speaks so softly at times you lean forward in your seat to hear him, and at times explodes in such a visceral rage that you recoil from his inner ugliness being vomited upon the scene.
Phoenix is the best acting going right now, and his work in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, is just another monument to that fact.
Jonah Hill is tremendous as Donnie, a sort of new age aristocrat and golden haired Dr. Phil. Donnie is definitely a character, but Hill never pushes or gets showy with him, he keeps it grounded and contained and so fully inhabits Donnie that he disappears into him. Hill is an actor you never would have guessed would end up being so good. As a comedian and a comic actor he is pretty predictable and rather mundane, but as a serious actor he has developed a solid base of skill and craft along with the courage to abandon his ego and persona and lose himself completely in roles...and it is a joy to behold.
Rooney Mara is such a luminous screen presence in the film that I kept expecting her to be revealed to be an angel or a figment of John Callahan's imagination at some point...but she isn't, she is a real person...well...sort of...her character Annu is so thinly written she is little more than a sparkle of sunshine dancing ever so briefly on a butterfly's wing.
In terms of the hidden sub-text of the film...there was one little gem that I discovered and was surprised by...namely that John Callahan is symbolic of Donald Trump. Yes, I know, maybe I, like the rest of America, am seeing Trump in every Rorschach test, but bear with me, I think this is valid as the similarities are striking. For instance, Callahan is an orange-haired cripple and Trump is an orange-haired emotional cripple. Both men are victims of an absent mother who abandoned them to either a cruel world or a cruel father. And both men vented their shadow by flouting political correctness and finding validation by offending other people. They also both claimed to be merely "saying what everyone is thinking" when they disregarded political correctness. Trump, like Callahan, is a shameless liar who is able to deceive nearly everyone, including himself. And finally both men have a thing for beautiful European women.
In regards to Callahan's evolutionary scale cartoon in relation to Trump, both men think they are on top of the scale, when in reality they are just at the top of this cycle of the scale, and will frequently devolve back into the swamp of their own tormented psychology, only to rise again over time.
Trump's presidency is a sign that America is in a stage of devolution right now (and frankly a much needed devolution). We are returning to the swamp in order to purge ourselves of everything but our most basic survival needs. As the cycle dictates, we will return to the mountaintop eventually and will stand at the podium to accept our award...only to be followed by our neck breaking dive head first into the swamp once again...and so goes the circle of life.
In conclusion, overall as much as I loved the performances, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot was slightly underwhelming and dare I say it disappointing due to structural flaws in the narrative that prove dramatically fatal. Van Sant was definitely off his game with this film because the second half loses momentum and also Callahan's drawing ability seemingly comes out of nowhere and is never satisfyingly explained.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is worth seeing on cable of Netflix for free (or in the theatre's with MoviePass if you like), but even with the great cast it doesn't rise to the level of paying full price to see it at the theatre. So there is no need to run, walk or crawl to the cineplex to catch Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot...but if you they show it at your rehab be thankful, it is much better...and more honest...than Clean and Sober.