When the news broke that Gus Van Sant was finally going to make a movie about cartoonist John Callahan, I knew my friend, who died in 2010, would have been elated that his 1989 memoir survived the long journey to the screen. But would it be the movie he wanted? Would disabled moviegoers excoriate Van Sant for casting yet another nondisabled actor — Joaquin Phoenix — to play a quadriplegic? Many in the disability and mainstream communities feared the final product might be forced into the “inspirational cripple” stereotype that the movie industry too often relies on — and that Callahan despised.
Van Sant got out in front of the expected backlash by declaring in a press release video that a nondisabled actor was needed to play Callahan in his pre-SCI years. He added that at first Callahan wanted Robin Williams to play him. When I interviewed John for a 2007 New Mobility story, he liked Phillip Seymour Hoffman for the role. Clearly, a nondisabled actor was not an issue for either the subject or the director.
Phoenix, 43, had the difficult job of portraying the politically incorrect cartoonist from the age of 20 until his mid-30s, focusing mainly on his post-injury-wheelchair-user alcoholic journey. He does a credible job of capturing the soft-spoken Callahan, whose real-life facial expressions and iconoclastic wit could easily be misinterpreted or missed altogether. In the few instances where Phoenix seems not quite convincing, the problem lies with the dialog or the situation — in other words, the script. His portrayal of Callahan’s C5-6 paralysis is authentic, right down to the increased level of dexterity in his right hand.
Moviegoers will form their own opinions about Phoenix’s portrayal, but he gradually won me over, and so did the movie. “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is well worth seeing, marked by strong acting performances, a story that builds emotionally, and a bittersweet, satisfying ending.
The Real Disability
In the first half of the movie, Van Sant uses smash-cuts and nonlinear sequences to reflect Callahan’s chaotic life before and after his paralyzing car crash. The early dramatic story is difficult to watch, at times even uncomfortable, yet mostly true to the pre- and post-accident experience. Catastrophic spinal cord injury has a way of ripping a life apart, leaving two violently separated remnants dangling. We are rewarded at the movie’s midpoint when Callahan begins to patch the two halves together. From the moment of epiphany forward, the movie is a pleasure to watch, especially as we share in the development of his unique cartooning talent.
Rooney Mara plays Annu, Callahan’s love interest. She befriends him in ICU — his body and head immobilized in a circle bed. She appears at just the right moment, like a dream, her pretty face a life-saving contrast to Callahan’s predicament. Throughout the movie she reappears, always fresh, their relationship eventually intimate, somehow always free from conflict. In contrast, Callahan’s memoir limits Annu’s real-life role to the hospital. He never sees her again after he leaves ICU.
Without a love interest (and considering Mara is a two-time Academy Award nominee), the movie might not have been made. If we want literal truth, we need a documentary. For a commercial movie, it is to Van Sant’s credit that the story never sinks to the maudlin paralyzed-quad-battles-insurmountable-odds default mode. And that is the key to the movie’s success: it clearly focuses on Callahan’s real disability — his alcoholism. His battle takes place in his soul, where he is consumed with the single most important fact he knows about his mother: she abandoned him, giving him away to a convent shortly after birth. Months later, he was put up for adoption and raised in a family where he felt like a faux sibling.
Jonah Hill plays Donnie, Callahan’s sponsor once he reluctantly enters Alcoholics Anonymous. Hill’s performance is surprisingly nuanced and convincing, and much of the emotion we feel as the movie nears its resolution comes from how much we have invested in Donnie’s journey as well as Callahan’s. Throughout the movie we see him as a strong and reliable sponsor with a quirky philosophy built on equal parts Lao-Tzu and broad tolerance for any individual’s choice of a Higher Power — as long as it derives from faith. The conflict between Donnie and Callahan is built upon Callahan’s denial of his deeper problem — obsessing with being abandoned.
Donnie’s job is to patiently lead his disciple to the higher ground of sobriety and inner equilibrium while making certain he knows it will remain a lifelong struggle. Callahan’s journey to redemption eventually leads him back to the movie’s beginning and Dexter, his drunken-driver-friend-for-a-bender (Callahan had passed out in the passenger seat at the time of the crash). Jack Black seems made for the role, doing an excellent job transforming from immature, wild-eyed party animal to middle-aged man with a soul full of shame.
Adapting an autobiographical book for the screen is — among other challenges — a dilemma in reductive editing. What parts must be deleted while staying true to the main story? In his book, Callahan doggedly searches for his mother at a time when Oregon law protected the birth mother’s identity. He runs into multiple dead ends before unearthing the hope-killing revelation that she died in a car crash years earlier. His biological father is dead as well. Callahan sinks into despair, but eventually recovers and finally finds the next best thing to a real relationship — photos, remembrances, testimonials. The woman who abandoned him was pretty, intelligent and had a sense of humor. The kind of mother he would have wanted.
Van Sant’s version of this all-important search plays like an incomplete summary. The onscreen Callahan never finds out the whole story about his birth mother. For my money, more screen time could have been spent on Callahan’s quest to find his mother and less on group therapy scenes.
Callahan’s cage-rattling cartoon drawings, so critical to his recovery, often come to life as moving images, spicing the weighty story line with funny-satirical moments. Danny Elfman’s edgy jazz score, while sparse, sets a fitting tone. In the closing credits we are given an unexpected gift worth waiting for — Callahan’s pure voice singing “Texas When You Go” from his 2007 CD, “Purple Winos in the Rain.”
In the final analysis, Don’t Worry succeeds largely because we see Callahan’s real struggle is much like Donnie’s — which is revealed in the last few scenes — and we feel included. Each of us is unique, yet we are alike. We all have our disabilities, and many of them manifest themselves from the inside out.