BERLIN: Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry He Wont Get Far on Foot which screens in the main competition of the Berlinale is one of his best films in recent years after a rather unproductive run of films from the talented American director in his last few outings.
Gus Van Sant’s biopic is based on the memoirs of cartoonist and quadriplegic John Callahan. Like many of Van Sant’s films he examines the search for identity by delving into people that inhabit social subcultures. Despite the tragic event that reshapes John Callahan’s life the film is a life-affirming fictionalised portrait of a life of limitations.
The fictionalised story is based on the facts this amazing artist’s life. John Callahan played by Joaquin Phoenix is a young rowdy 21 year old with a penchant for off-colour jokes and a drinking problem. When a casual acquaintance at a party suggests they go on an all-night bender in LA he is already on board for the fun. But after falling asleep in a drunken stupor on his drinking buddy’s passenger seat, he wakes up the next morning in hospital, a quadriplegic.
John has become a wheelchair user for life and to discover any meaning in his existence is going to take everything he has got. Van Sant sets the film on his home ground of Portland Oregon to very successful effect as he has done in the past and which one could hope he might do more of in future. The film was originally supposed to have Robin Williams in the leading role when the project was first proposed to Van Sant 20 years ago following the huge success of Good Will Hunting. Williams had optioned the rights to Callahan’s book and was fascinated by the chance to play the wheel-chair bound hooligan. But somehow the time was never right to get the project into production during Williams’ lifetime.
Nonetheless Joaquin Phoenix is the heart and sole of the film giving a performance that will have him in contention when the awards season rolls around. He brings a much more serious approach to the role no doubt than what Williams would have done but it works. Van Sant has chosen to focus on the part of Callahan’s book that deals with his alcoholism and recovery using the 12 point recovery plan of Alcoholics Anonymous as a device to narrate the film. It might seem an odd choice but it keeps the film on track.
Whatever Phoenix’s intense interpretation lacks in playing for laughs is made up for by the comic actors Jack Black and Jonah Hill who plays a hilarious life coach. But perhaps the biggest laughs go to Udo Kier’s character.
Callahan eventually found himself through his irreverent cartoons that won him an international following. This could have been a very sad and over earnest film in the wrong hands with a sickly over sweet preachy Hollywood storyline. Exactly what Callahan would have hated. But Van Sant makes this both life-affirming and off the wall irreverent at the same time. Callahan would have approved.
Don’t Worry He Wont Get Far on Foot (USA)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Mark Webber, Udo Kier, Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon