Gus Van Sant's long career has seen him sway from art house fair like Elephant and Last Days to mainstream feel-good films like Good Will Hunting. Sitting right in the middle of those two sensibilities is Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. The film strikes on odd balance between his styles and continues a disappointing string of films aside from some truly great performances.
Those two performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill ground the film and almost make up for the wackadoo direction. Based on the memoir of Portland, Oregon cartoonist John Callahan, the film is structured around a series of somewhat non-linear stories about his drinking and the ways in which it left him paralyzed. Despite an impressionistic editing style at times, the film regularly falls into several biopic cliches. I would have liked to see the film either be more conventional or far more experimental as a middle of the road approach doesn't work here.
Callahan lost the ability to walk at 21 after a nasty car crash. The driver Dexter (Jack Black), is a wild man whom he meets at a party and goes out for a bender with. Dexter walks away clean. Callahan has to begin physical therapy where he meets Annu (a wasted Rooney Mara) whom he begins to form a relationship with. After hitting rock bottom again, he eventually goes to AA where he meets Donnie (Hill). Phoenix is completely believable in every scene. He continues a long streak of proving he is one of the best actors we have. This performance only adds to that.
The scenes surrounding Donnie's mentoring sessions are the highlight of the film. They are often funny but always tinged with sadness and loss. Seeing Hill and Phoenix together is rewarding as both actors bring a lot to their roles here. It is too bad that the film keeps working against a more powerful catharsis and climax for these performances. What also comes through is how hilarious and personal Callahan's cartooning is. The film can't compete with the real art and there is a nagging sense that an audience would get more out of watching an interview with Callahan and then relishing in his work. The film holds little power, feels slight and uneventful. Van Sant doesn't make it clear why he wants to tell this story and especially why he wants to tell it in a fragmented way. Those looking for his riskier stylings will be disappointed while the material begs for a more straightforward approach.
In the end, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot becomes sappy and fails to tell a
powerful story. The power is all in Callahan's art, which reflects all the poor decisions his alcoholism caused him to make. I sincerely urge you to check his work out but skip the film.