Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill lead a hefty cast in <em></em><em>Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot</em>. Photo by Scott Patrick Green/Amazon Studios

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill lead a hefty cast in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Photo by Scott Patrick Green/Amazon Studios

Steady Footing

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill anchor ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,’ Gus Van Sant’s biopic about a quadriplegic cartoonist.

Portland’s resident filmmaking genius, Gus Van Sant, can go either way. Sometimes he’s mainstream (lest we forget Good Will Hunting) and sometimes he’s experimental (in the remarkable Elephant and Gerry). For his latest film, he wears both hats.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to fellow Portland legend John Callahan. You may remember Callahan: the carrot-haired quadriplegic cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings repeatedly crossed the borderline of good taste. The title refers to the caption of one of his most famous panels, a picture of some cowboys pondering an abandoned wheelchair in the middle of the desert. Before his death in 2010, Callahan worked with Van Sant on developing this biopic.

Van Sant’s mainstream side shows in the movie’s surprisingly conventional storyline: After his paralyzing accident at age 21, Callahan fights alcoholism and finally embraces the 12 Step method, an inspirational process that gets his life together and results in his professional success. What’s different about Don’t Worry is Van Sant’s chockablock approach to the material, which jumps around in time and makes Callahan’s story seem like it’s constantly in the act of unfolding. Which maybe it was.

Ultimately, it works in large part because of a fine cast and Van Sant’s sensitive work with them. Joaquin Phoenix (who starred in Van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For) plays Callahan with committed gusto. The role is right in Phoenix’s wheelhouse, and he roots through the various sides of Callahan’s personality, by turns obnoxious, terrified, buoyant, and—especially in the scenes where he goes around making amends to people he’s offended in the past—movingly heartfelt. Rooney Mara plays Callahan’s Swedish friend, and while the film doesn’t seem interested in exploring her background, she’s still appealing in the role. And in a limited part, Jack Black beautifully navigates a tricky character: the party-hearty pal whose drunk driving results in the accident that changed Callahan’s life.

There’s an especially tasty role for Jonah Hill, as Callahan’s AA sponsor Donnie, a laid-back dude with inherited wealth. In sun-tipped Beach Boy hair and beard, Donnie is blissed-out yet no-nonsense, a fully-inhabited portrait of a whimsical but caring soul. Other odd actors float through, as you’d expect them to in a Van Sant movie: Sonic Youth mainstay Kim Gordon, oily character actor Udo Kier, and Portlandia creator/star Carrie Brownstein. Somehow these oddball people fit the kind of world Callahan imagined in his cartoons.

Van Sant’s jigsaw-puzzle storytelling means the movie just kind of ends rather than builds to a great climax. It certainly falls short of being a great movie. But I like the way it deals with subjects that are sometimes ignored in mainstream media—the sexual lives of people with disabilities, for instance—and for two great, basically wordless sequences: One of Donnie dancing alone, and one with the fully-addicted Callahan jonesing in his house, unable to reach a precious bottle of booze on a high shelf. The moment of reckoning that follows is one that sometimes feels forced in movies, but in this instance Phoenix and Van Sant had me convinced.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Now Playing | Rated R

More in Arts & Culture

Cast trailers for “Three Busy Debras” filming at the Snoqualmie YMCA parking lot on Sept. 4. Madison Miller / staff photo
New TV show filming in Snoqualmie

“Three Busy Debras” is being filmed in cities in the Seattle area, including Snoqualmie.

Tyler, The Creator performs during Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in Seattle, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Gallery: Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival 2019

Scenes from Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival at the Seattle Center.

Acquisition gift chosen from 2018 Seattle Art Fair. Installation view of Recent Acquisitions: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Frye Art Museum, 2019. Photo: Jueqian Fang.
Seattle Art Fair renews partnership with Frye Art Museum

The Seattle Art Fair, presented by AIG, is pleased to announce the… Continue reading

Bread Face. Courtesy of the artist @breadfaceblog.
Seattle Art Fair returns Aug. 1

The Seattle Art Fair, presented by AIG, is proud to announce the… Continue reading

Linda Hodges Gallery in Pioneer Square. Photo courtesy Linda Hodges Gallery
Despite Construction, Pioneer Square’s Art Galleries Remain Strong

Long a hub for Seattle’s visual arts scene, the neighborhood gets an new space this spring with the opening of ARTS at King Street Station.

Patty Gone offers an artistic toast to Danielle Steel. Photo courtesy Mount Analogue
Patty Gone’s Queer Romance Novel Reflections

The artist’s upcoming residency at Mount Analogue explores the cultural impact of pulpy romantic fantasy.

Photo by Spencer Baker 
                                Mark Haim’s torso will be guided by his friends’ movements in Parts to a Sum.
Crowdsourced Choreography

Mark Haim’s ‘Parts to a Sum’ exemplifies how choreographers are relinquishing control in the name of collaboration.

Seeing the Seattle Opera’s <em>The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs</em> counts as screen time. Photo by Philip Newton
The Innovative Tech Disconnect of ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’

Like the technology Jobs pioneered, the Seattle Opera production is flashy but lacking in soul.

Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2019 Picks

Make the most of the cultural cinematic event with these four selections.

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Britney Barber (center) and Samantha Demboski (left) perform in ‘Empty Orchestra.’ Photo courtesy Jet City Improv
Making It Up As They Go Along

Jet City Improv’s retributive actions towards a former player raise issues of the comedy institution’s staff culture.