By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Battling alcoholism is already a highly challenging struggle, but when one has to cope with the limitations of paralysis in addition to addiction, this is an entirely different level of adversity. Such is the very true story of artist John Callahan, a talented cartoonist with an appropriately wry and politically incorrect sense of humor. Callahan achieved moderate success as a cartoonist whose work was published in newspapers and magazines, but had to overcome his alcohol addiction and work with the limitations of quadrplegia. Callahan’s powerful and triumphant story is the subject of a new great film by director Gus Van Sant titled Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as John Callahan, an artist and musician who had a rough childhood as an orphan. Born to a young and single mother, John spent most of his life in foster care and these experiences contributed to his drinking as a teen and adult. The movie starts off with John barely surviving as a raging alcoholic, living only for his drinks and hard partying. When a night of such partying leads to a catastrophic car accident, John barely survives, but is left paralyzed with very limited control of his hands and arms. As he attempts to adjust to his disability, Callahan resumes drinking, but eventually reaches a major turning point in his life and decides to seek treatment.
Written by John Callahan, Gus Van Sant, Jack Gibson, and William Andrew Eatman, Gus Van Sant’s new movie takes what could have been a cliche and formulaic story and turns it into something compelling, beautiful and even amusing. Given how heavy the material can get, Van Sant and his co-writers remain faithful to John Callahan’s wicked sense of humor and the mixed reactions he received from his subversive art work. Van Sant and his writers manage to juggle both the emotionally charged moments with funny ones without overplaying both cards. There is an almost unavoidable element of transparency that comes with this kind of story, but the filmmakers do manage to not make their film and story play too obviously. The entire film offers audiences an affecting story that doesn’t come across as heavy handed at all.
The tremendous cast lends their impressive chops to pull this off. Joaquin Phoenix gives a sublime turn as the pained, but intelligently witty John Callahan. Jonah Hill gives another award-worthy performance as John’s flamboyant, but dedicated AA sponsor Donnie. The movie also can boast solid work by Mara Rooney, Jack Black, Tony Greenhand, Beth Ditto, Udo Kier, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Carrie Brownstein, and Kim Gordon.
And though this film’s story has some elements in common with other triumph- over-adversity biopics, the writing, direction, and performances makes this one not to miss. Not that many movie goers know who John Callahan was, but his is a story definitely worth telling. He may have had a tremendously difficult and dysfunctional life, but the fact that he managed to succeed with all of his limitations proves that life can still prevail.