Just as he did with 2008’s Milk, writer/director Gus Van Sant takes a biopic that in lesser hands could have felt like a cheesy TV movie of the week and infuses it with subtlety and energy in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
Based on the memoirs of politically incorrect Portland cartoonist John Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the movie tells the story of how he overcame both alcoholism and a car accident that left him paralyzed. Phoenix does typically strong work in the lead, and his performance is matched by Jonah Hill as his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
The adversity faced by Callahan is such that it would be easy to overplay it on screen. But Van Sant’s script keeps things low-key. There are a lot of vivid details about the mundane, day-to-day struggles of people dealing with paralysis and those of people fighting with addiction. Still, the film never shoots for easy tears. A late scene where Callahan meets the former friend (Jack Black) whose drunk driving caused the wreck that paralyzed Callahan is underplayed and ends up being more moving for it. Callahan had a wry, dark sense of humor in real life, and the movie maintains that vibe as well. The closing shot is a fitting mixture of both humor and pathos.
One can make the argument that biopics have been overdone in the 21st century, but Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is proof that there is still life left in the genre.