PLOT An alcoholic paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident finds unexpected success as a cartoonist.
CAST Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara
RATED R (language, sexuality and adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE Gus Van Sant's biopic about a self-made artist brims with hard-won wisdom and terrific performances from unlikely actors.
Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, a cartoonist whose button-pushing sense of humor made him a polarizing figure in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, in “Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.” The title, we eventually learn, is a caption for one of Callahan's panels: It shows a posse whose horses have stopped at an empty wheelchair in the desert.
Callahan was himself in a wheelchair, the result of a car accident at the age of 21 (he died in 2010). His story might seem to put this movie in the company of “My Left Foot,” “The Theory of Everything” and other biopics about triumph over physical adversity. Writer-director Gus Van Sant ("Drugstore Cowboy," "Good Will Hunting"), however, is interested in Callahan’s deeper affliction: alcoholism. That inward focus elevates this movie from the merely “inspirational” — though it is that — to something genuinely meaningful and instructive.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” jumps back and forth between three stages of Callahan’s life. He is the neighborhood drunk who takes an ill-advised joy ride in a VW Bug piloted by fellow party animal Dexter (a brief but crucial Jack Black). He is the paraplegic who continues to drown his self-pity in booze. Finally, he is the recovering alcoholic who joins AA, finds an unexpected new career and begins dating a flight attendant (Rooney Mara as Annu).
Callahan’s polarizing work — about Klansmen, pedophiles and other taboo topics — takes on new relevance in this era of heightened sensitivity (or lack thereof). What really brings the movie alive, though, are Callahan’s emotionally explosive AA meetings. His fellow alcoholics are a motley crew of socialites, roughnecks and weirdos, beautifully played by an eclectic cast that includes comedian Ronnie Adrian, German actor Udo Kier and rockers Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto. From them, Callahan learns to part ways with self-pity, stop fighting life’s riptides and look for contentment.
Phoenix, in a role originally intended for Robin Williams, delivers another utterly flawless performance as man slowly but steadily evolving. Unexpectedly, he’s just about rivaled by Jonah Hill as Donnie, an AA leader whose coy sexuality and beatific glow are wonderful to behold. “Maybe,” he tells Callahan in what could be this film’s mantra, “life’s not supposed to be as meaningful as we think it is.”