We each have our own forms of self-medication. Some are just easier to spot than others.
For John Callahan, it was alcohol.
Based on Callahan’s 1989 memoir, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot tells the story of how a car accident changed Callahan from a walking alcoholic with no focus to a quadriplegic cartoonist with purpose.
The story is told in flashback, as Callahan, a successful cartoonist, is speaking to an audience about his journey from despair to peace. Starring as the extraordinary Callahan is the extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance in The Master remains one of my all-time favorites. Jack Black co-stars as Callahan’s friend Dexter, the one driving the night of the accident. Dexter walks away without a scratch while Callahan becomes like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, except instead of being confined to an island, he is confined to himself. Despite being in a wheelchair, Callahan continues to drink, but it is in his solitude that he is forced to look inward for the truth. One day, after finding himself unable to open the bottle of alcohol that his caretaker left for him, Callahan has a vision of his mother which leads to his decision to give up drinking for good. He then enters a treatment program, and that is when the real pain is unleashed.
But this is not a sad movie.
How can a film about an alcoholic, who becomes paralyzed after a car accident, possibly fit the formula for a heartwarming comedy? Don’t Worry marks a comeback of sorts for Gus Van Sant, who so eloquently merged drama with comedic relief in Good Will Hunting and does so again here. As for Phoenix, not for one second do you feel that he is putting on a performance, even as his character deals with being in a wheelchair while struggling to find an answer to his constant need to be numb to life. This is not Phoenix’s “greatest” performance per se, but it is certainly one of his lightest. Notwithstanding Inherent Vice and To Die For, Don’t Worry is Phoenix’s best foray into comedy. Warmth radiates from his every expression, even in trying times, and it his smile that steals the film, especially when he sees his real-life love Rooney Mara (who plays Callahan’s nurse/girlfriend in the film) for the first time. The romantic in me could not help but be mesmerized anytime Mara and Phoenix had scenes. It was a joy watching them fall in love on the big screen, especially in such a poignant vehicle. For me, Don’t Worry has more emotional punch than The Theory of Everything, which felt contrived at times. There is nothing contrived about Don’t Worry, the performances of the supporting characters serving as evidence. When Phoenix’s Callahan hits rock bottom, he has a strong cast to help him back up.
Jonah Hill is superb as Callahan’s sponsor Donnie. Mara is divine. Ronnie Adrian as Martingale, a member of Callahan’s support group, is an exceptional standout.
Watching this film stirred up memories of my own encounter with solitude and how it affected me as an artist. I got mono at 14 and was in bed mostly for about six months. I am a very active person, and it was during that time when I had only myself to look to that another aspect of my creativity bloomed. I always wanted to be a writer, but it was pain that brought forth beauty from the ashes. Callahan’s story is similar in that he created art in order to stay alive. His cartoons were extensions of his need to survive. Thanks to Phoenix, Van Sant, and the stellar supporting cast, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot serves as an inspiration to those who feel their lives are overdue to tragedy, and if you are going to tell a story about a phoenix rising from the ashes, who better to star in it than Joaquin?