Directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant), Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot tells the story of controversial cartoonist, John Callahan. After nearly dying in a car accident, the last thing Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) intends to do is give up alcohol. Reinvigorated by his girlfriend and a charming sponsor, Donnie (Jonah Hill), Callahan reluctantly enters Alcoholics Anonymous and discovers that his passion for drawing. The budding artist soon finds himself with a new lease on life when his edgy and irreverent newspaper cartoons gain a national and devoted following.
In its best moments, Don’t Worry… provides Phoenix ample opportunity to showcase his incredible ability to disappear into a role. His portrait of Callahan balances both pride and brokenness in an engaging manner. However, it’s Jonah Hill who continues to surprise. As Callahan’s sponsor, Hill steals the film, depicting Donnie as a complex picture of truth and grace. Interestingly though, it’s director Van Sant’s decision to break the film’s narrative structure that creates the most conversation. By juxtaposing moments of death with moments of hope and personal breakthrough, Van Sant seems to want us to understand that each moment of our lives informs the next. In other words, by presenting the life of his subject to the viewer seemingly all at once, the film serves as a reminder that Callahan’s battles also mirror and enlighten his successes. (For instance, in one particular scene, Van Sant parallels Callahan’s tragic car accident with a moment when he falls from his wheelchair, reminding us that his past has created his present.) While jarring in some places, the technique proves effective for the majority of the film, offering context to Callahan’s journey in a unique manner.
Since much of the film chronicles Callahan’s journey with Alcoholics Anonymous, Don’t Worry…is imbued with intriguing conversations about reliance on a higher power. Callahan’s journey to sobriety takes him on a genuine wrestling match with God—although, to be fair, what God looks like here is entirely subjective and even unorthodox. (For example, Donnie’s vision of a higher power takes the form of psychotic doll Chucky, because “he’s unpredictable”.) For Callahan, his journey towards healing begins with his acknowledgement of his own weakness and his need for help from someone more powerful. In the strangest of realities, there is a healing that takes place when he understands his own human frailty and accepts the spiritual strength from Another. (As a pastor, I can relate to this truth on any number of levels.)
However, Callahan’s story is not merely one of healing through group therapy either. In fact, his journey also shows the power of finding your voice. Known for his political cartoons, Callahan found his true calling by speaking on behalf of a generation that was struggling to find itself. Though frequently controversial in his content, Callahan committed himself to expressing himself in ways that challenged the cultural norm. In doing so, his voice also gave him sense of hope and purpose that had eluded him throughout much of his life.
In the end, Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a poignant character piece about one man’s fight for self-discovery. Anchored by Phoenix but buoyed by Hill, the film is often engaging in ways that are both challenge and entertain. Though not his best work, Van Sant can still create well-rounded characters that don’t shy away from their frailties but still highlight their hopefulness as well.