Gus Van Sant has led a storied career that spans decades. He has created some incredibly compelling stories and some of my personal favorite films. I knew pretty much from the moment I saw To Die For my 12-year-old brain know that this guy was making the kind of movies that I wanted to see and (hopefully) one day make myself. In the remaining years since I first encountered a Gus Van Sant movie, I have liked all of them I’ve seen, which is most of them. I like to think that encountering Gus Van Sant films like Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, etc. has opened my mind to the possibilities of narrative filmmaking.
Don’t Worry, They Won’t Get Far On Foot is unmistakeably a Van Sant film. From the trademark zoom-ins to the cast consisting of A-list celebrities (Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Jack Black), rock-stars (Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein), cult film stars (Udo Keir), one of the Phoenix siblings (Joaquin Phoenix, who is also, obviously, an A-list celebrity as well), and some relatively unknown actors (most notably Sunny Sujic from Mid90s).
Don’t Worry is a snapshot into alcoholism, its consequences and recovery, shown through the guise of a bio-pic of reknowned Portland cartoonist, the late John Callahan. Robin Williams had originally brought the story to Van Sant’s attention but due to scheduling and the beloved comedian’s untimely death, Gus had to switch gears. The book, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot: The Autobiography Of a Dangerous Man, was written by John Callahan and released in 1989. It contains most of the details of his life.
“We see Callahan’s journey towards sobriety and whatever kind of normalcy he can attain in a non-linear narrative…”
The tale centers on a life changing car accident that occurs when Callahan (Phoenix) and his friend Dexter (Jack Black) go out on a bender and Dexter falls asleep at the wheel. Callahan comes out of the accident as a quadrapalegic, while Dexter walks away with a few scratches. We see Callahan’s journey towards sobriety and whatever kind of normalcy he can attain in a non-linear narrative that bounces back and forth between pre- and post-sobriety and quadrapalegia.
Some of the best scenes in the film take place in Callahan’s AA discussion group, which take place in his sponsor, Donnie’s (Jonah Hill) ornate mansion. Donnie is one of Jonah Hill’s most inspired performances thus far. He’s a gay trust-fund kid with a penchant for disco dancing and getting his sponsees (or as he calls them piglets) to open up and figure out what caused them to start drinking in the first place.
At these meetings, John and Donnie are joined by an ebulliant redneck lady with heart cancer, Reba (Beth Ditto); a suburban housewife who lost her s**t, Corky (Kim Gordon); a black gay street poet, Martingale (Ronnie Adrian); a mysoginistic Vietnam War veteran, Mike (Mark Webber); and an older German gentleman Hans (Udo Keir, sharing a name with his character in My Own Private Idaho). The dynamic between the group members is wonderful and to know that some of the dialouge in these scenes is improvised makes it even more real and immediate.
“…a delightful comedy about some of the darkest stuff we can go through…”
The tale of Callahan’s ascension from the hell of alcoholism is at times sad, which comes with the territory. We see the hell he goes through getting to the point where he can function as a quadrapalegic. We discover that a lot of his anger and perhaps the root cause of his drinking comes from being adopted and not knowing his real mother. He has a quip he uses pretty often. “I know three things about my mother: She was Irish, she had red hair, and she was a school teacher. Oh yeah, and she didn’t want me. I guess that makes four things.” As a child of adoption, myself, I related to that sense of not really knowing where you came from, and can relate to the darkness it brings out in Callahan.
Overall, despite the subject matter, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a hopeful film. We find out that our protagonist finally gets to do what he wants — create darkly funny cartoons. He loves to go up to random people on the street to show them his creations, both before and after they make it into the newspaper. He offends some people with his work, but being the type of person he is, he loves it.
I know it might be too late, but I definitely want to add Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot to my “Best Films of 2018” list. It’s a delightful comedy about some of the darkest stuff we can go through as humans, which can only be pulled off by certain writers and directors. Gus Van Sant is definitely one of them.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (2018) Written and Directed by Gus Van Sant. Story by Gus Van Sant, Jack Gibson, and William Andrew Eatman. Based on a book by John Callahan. Starring Joaquin Pheonix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, Udo Kier.
9 out of 10 stars.