“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” – REVIEW
An inspirational story that does its best to try and convince you that it is not, anchored with a tremendous performance by Joaquin Phoenix, makes “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” one of the most original mainstream films released this year.
I am going to start off by stating that this was absolutely the perfect title for the film (and previous autobiography) based around the life of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. I have a bit of a problem with myself for the description in that last sentence, because after seeing the film you realize what a disservice it is to reduce a person’s life to a one or two-word encapsulation of their profession when truly everyone is so much more than just that. “Baker”. “Carpenter”. “Quadriplegic cartoonist”. Granted, that’s a very non-standard description for a person to have, but the way that the filmmakers take that, and play with the preconceptions and clichés we have grown to expect from a biopic like this, makes for a very enjoyable film that accepts itself as exactly what it is.
Going back to the title, the simple paradox of it, enshrined into one of Callahan’s cartoons early on in the film is obvious, but the subtle irony of how it illustrates an emotional and internal struggle through life is what makes it perfect. The boundaries we place on ourselves, and our refusal to look at, accept and overcome (or even just live with) our flaws is how the film depicts that none of us can get very far if you can’t be honest with yourself. One of the first lines in the film questions exactly how as individuals we ponder on how life should be more ‘meaningful’ than it is, but what if it’s not supposed to be? – and that subtext tends to inform every other scene in the film. Being able to reflect on that, and consider how it is that you want to define yourself, is what will make this movie last in your head after taking it in.
The plot itself is fairly standard, but the approach it takes to show a more real-life depiction of dealing with tragedy, loss, and addiction makes it a little more relatable than other films of this nature. Also, Joaquin is simply mesmerizing as John, naturally embodying the physical attributes such as how he picks up a bottle with the backs of his hands but also his sardonic attitude that in the end doesn’t come across as bitterness. You really get the sense of his (emotional) pain when he first wakes up in the hospital room, to believing how that would make him continue his unabated drunkenness in a wheelchair after such a tragedy, to being hopeful as he makes his way through the 12 steps of A.A. When John finally admits to his group that he was the one who made the decision to ride in the car with a drunk driver because he was drunk too, and that admission comes with the realization there is no lightning bolt that is going to make him feel instantly better, is definitely one of the more honest and realistic statements about addiction ever put on film. The fact that the struggle will continue, still, day after day, but that you can find the will and support to live with it in a positive way is probably the best thing about the film.
There are certainly a couple of things that don’t work in the film, which is sad, because minor though they are I couldn’t stop thinking about them during and after. The way they structure it by jumping between the time periods of his life before, during, and after the accident without fully ever identifying exactly when we are is a bit jarring. He might be in a wheelchair at a group session, and they flashback to a different point before where he’s still drinking and then jump ahead to him showing his drawings to the student newspaper and then back to him drinking in the park but now with a mustache. I didn’t mind this too much up until and including the point where he realizes he’s an alcoholic and is going to join a program, because it allowed for a nice montage showcasing all the points in which it was affecting his behaviour and it clarified for him how low he went (There was another great line later on about having to be broken and going through that to find your path as well) but after that it could have been more steadily focused on his recovery. I then completely forgot that there was also a scene in another time period altogether where he fell off a curb and some neighbourhood kids helped him back into his wheelchair and he started to show them his drawings. His relationship with Annu, the Swedish physical therapist and later airline attendant was certainly underdeveloped. The way she is first presented I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be real or a figment of his own imagination to help him deal with his trauma; and then when they meet again you never do get a sense of why she would be with him over anyone else. Every now again they touch on a topic such as the Vietnam war or the onset of AIDS but these only last for a scene or two, and the search for his birth mother gets a bit more screen time but also conveniently gets relegated to the back burner until it is brought back for one of the parts of his 12 steps.
That being said, the heartfelt, genuine and honest depiction of these characters and story can’t really be criticized, and in a way also perfectly captures the theme of the film. In the final scene, John is on stage, and after everything he’s been through he thanks everyone that has helped him to become what he is today. Accepting all of it and becoming something better all the time. Not ignoring it. Not letting any one thing define him. Giving back.
If only we could all learn to help each other in that way.
Reel Movie Mondays’ next film is “The Third Murder” on October 29th, 2018. Until then, save me the aisle seat!
-Jason Hlady, Volunteer, RMM