With over three decades as a filmmaker, Gus Van Sant’s firsthand knowledge of the industry’s highs and lows can’t be questioned. He began as an independent voice in the 80s and early 90s, quickly capturing the attention of critics and artistic devotees, only to blossom into a more mainstream figure following the overwhelmingly successful Good Will Hunting, a personal favorite of mine. And since then, Van Sant has continued to “wow” audiences with celebrated titles such as the Oscar contender Milk and his hypnotic Cannes winner Elephant, while also churning out commercial duds like the 1998 Psycho remake. This time around Van Sant teams with notable talents Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara to bring the grueling true story of paraplegic and famed cartoonist, John Callahan, to life in his Sundance selection, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
Chemically dependent on alcohol from a very young age, John Callahan (Phoenix) becomes even more resentful of the world when a night of insane binge drinking results in a tragic car accident that leaves him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. John continues to drown his sorrows with copious amounts of alcohol until a profound epiphany sends him to AA where he begins sobering up under the tutelage of Donnie (Jonah Hill), a homosexual sponsor who imparts valuable wisdom on his many “piglets” striving for sobriety. And as John navigates through his emotional baggage with the program’s 12 essential steps, he also discovers a form of catharsis with his darkly comedic cartoon illustrations that eventually grow to become a national hit.
He Won’t Get Far on Foot becomes a showcase for its performers, as the film’s limited scope gives way to vast bouts of dialogue that push the onus onto this skilled crop of actors and actresses to shine bright. The always fantastic Joaquin Phoenix does just that, gifting audiences with another terrific turn which beautifully encapsulates the strange and complex mind behind a true comedic genius. Yet, Phoenix is anything but alone in his conquests. Co-stars Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black all provide dynamic supporting work that, in turn, help make this occasionally sluggish viewing experience quite tolerable. A slimmed-down and bearded Jonah Hill is a spiritual Zen-master of sorts, possessing a Jesus-like aura that lights the way for John’s tumultuous path to sobriety. But despite these many exceptional performances, He Won’t Get Far on Foot suffers from many lulls, due in large part to the script’s repetitive nature. Although the film is widely outstretched and only marginally funny, Gus Van Sant still delivers an earnest character study that’s undeniably highlighted by its uber-talented cast.