“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” has some poignant moments but is too tonally jarring to be enjoyable. It’s like mixing peanut butter with ketchup, or watching Sarah Silverman do some brilliant, vulgar stand-up at a funeral. Based on the real-life story of paralyzed cartoonist John Callahan, there’s plenty of genuine pathos and baroque humor to work with here. But director Gus Van Sant can never balance the opposite ends of Callahan’s life spectrum to make something meaningful.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan at different points in his life, shown out of sequence throughout the movie. One moment we watch a 20-something Callahan walking around with a handle of cheap whiskey tucked underneath his trembling arm, the next we watch as he bickers with Alcoholics Anonymous and group therapy participants from the coziness of his motorized wheelchair. As Callahan’s life is cut up and rearranged, glimpses of Jimmy Carter on TV and non-power steering 1970s sedans help establish a place and time.
Callahan’s struggles are tragic and his accomplishments sublime, with Phoenix giving a sturdy performance. His co-stars like Rooney Mara, who plays Callahan’s love interest, and Jack Black, the drunk driving dope responsible for the wreck that put Callahan in a wheelchair, also give their best work. Jonah Hill steals the show though as some sober-living guru with wisdom beyond his no more than 20-30 something years on earth. It’s not Hill’s best performance, but it is the most likely to make you forget you’re watching Hill onscreen.
The individual dramatic efforts don’t add up to a meaningful whole, though, as we find ourselves awkwardly wondering if it’s appropriate to laugh in this movie, let alone is it funny. That’s strangely appropriate with the subject matter of Callahan’s own cartoons, side-splitting in nature but always bound to rustle some readers’ feathers for being too lewd or deviant or what have you. But Callahan’s cartoons had a more explicit goal of trying to make people laugh, knowing some would still be offended. “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” isn’t sure what it’s trying to accomplish.