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Movie Review: The Performances Shine in Uneven Biopic 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot'

Rick Kisonak Aug 1, 2018 10:00 AM

Gus Van Sant started making movies around the time I started reviewing them, so I've followed his entire career. Three decades in, I know exactly one thing about him: You never know what you're going to get with Gus Van Sant.

Whose filmography is half as scattershot? How is it possible the person who made My Own Private Idaho (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997) and Elephant (2003) is the same sentient being responsible for imbecilities like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), Restless (2011) and The Sea of Trees (2016)?

How many directors have a Rotten Tomatoes track record remotely as schizoid as this: Drugstore Cowboy (1989, 100 percent fresh) and Milk (2008, 94 percent) versus Psycho (1998, 37 percent) and The Sea of Trees (11 percent)? Ditto Van Sant's batting average at the box office: While Good Will Hunting topped $225 million, The Sea of Trees starred Matthew McConaughey yet struggled to reach $825,577.

Hence I walked into Van Sant's latest with reason to wonder what I was walking into. The good news is, there are several first-rate performances and clever directorial flourishes in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. The bad news is, they're in the service of a biopic that fudges facts and seems not to know terribly much about its subject. Which is weird, since Van Sant's screenplay is based on John Callahan's autobiography.

Joaquin Phoenix (who starred in To Die For [1995] early in his career) reteams with the filmmaker to play the Portland, Ore., cartoonist. Though its timeline is needlessly scrambled, the picture ultimately tells the story of an angry young man who drinks way too much and is left a quadriplegic by a car accident at 21. He becomes even angrier and continues to drink way too much until his mother appears to him in a vision, after which he gets sober through Alcoholics Anonymous and becomes an internationally syndicated cartoonist.

Phoenix pulls another odd, compelling creature out of his sleeve. He succeeds in making the crotchety Callahan sympathetic, if not always likable. The film is crammed with fascinating portrayals. There's Jonah Hill as Donnie, the rich, flaxen-tressed AA sponsor who rocks a cigarette holder and calls his group "my piglets"; Jack Black as Dexter, the drinking buddy asleep at the wheel the night of the crash; and Carrie Brownstein as Callahan's disapproving caseworker. Brownstein is primarily one of Van Sant's flourishes: This is Portland, and she stars in "Portlandia." Clever.

Rooney Mara is radiant as the physical therapist whose bedside manner entails climbing into bed with Callahan. But her character is a concoction. It isn't cool to adapt someone's autobiography, then retool it with fiction. The scene in which that vision of his mother inspires Callahan to sober up, for instance: Nice thought, but it never happened.

What Van Sant omits proves as vexing as what he adds. As a boy, Callahan was sexually molested by a female teacher. The trauma informed his entire worldview, so why aren't viewers informed? One minute, he's a raging alcoholic. The next, he's a brilliant cartoonist, his panels carried worldwide. I'd have happily learned less about his boilerplate road to recovery and more about his remarkable creative path.

Thankfully, Van Sant interweaves a sampling of Callahan's work. It's a thing of twisted beauty that elevates the whole affair and makes you eager to seek out more. There are far less wonderful ways a filmmaker can pay tribute to a fellow artist.