Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is likely a good enough film for the vast majority of people who will trickle into the movie theater, plop themselves down in the leather seats, and commit themselves to checking out the latest interesting and Oscar baity role tackled by Joaquin Phoenix.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot doesn't, however, go quite far enough for those of us, myself included, whose lives were changed by this illustrating madman, this man who survived tragedy and turned it into something resembling subversive melodrama with a fairly healthy dose of that sort of faux inspiration that Callahan himself absolutely despised.
I was sitting in a professional webinar recently. The webinar covered the topic of survivorship and self-advocacy for those with disabilities and, as one might expect, it largely featured those with disabilities sharing their stories and hopes and dreams and frustrations in front of what was likely an audience of a couple hundred people watching via the webcast.
The audience ate it up. They loved it. Praised it.
Me? I hated it. I hated almost every minute of it. I found it to be misinformed, inaccurate, whiny, and self-victimizing. It was the typical disability bullshit that I despise.
Now then, before you think I'm just some cold and callous asshole, though I mostly am, I'm a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida. At 52 years of age, I've lived far longer than anyone expected and I've accomplished more, but not nearly enough, than anyone ever expected.
I don't tolerate the "poor me" shit very well.
It's not that I love being disabled. I don't. It's not like I was sitting ass first on the edge of my mother's vagina getting ready to plop out when I enthusiastically suggested to God "Hey, God. Why not poke a hole in my spine? I'm curious what would happen."
But, I am what I am and for the most part I have no complaints.
Callahan? Callahan had lots of complaints. He was a seriously complaining motherfucker. As a young man, he had a serious lust for life and an almost innate gift for off-color, grossly inappropriate jokes.
Oh yeah, he also had a drinking problem.
At the age of 21 and after a late night bender, John Callahan became a quadriplegic as a result of a catastrophic car accident while bar hopping with a buddy who was driving Callahan's car.
In case you're wondering, becoming a quadriplegic doesn't exactly encourage one to give up drinking. It just makes it a whole fucking lot harder to get that bottle up to your mouth.
Eventually, encouraged by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and sponsor (Jonah Hill), John finds his way to rehab and it's there that the discovers a previously undiscovered gift for drawing out the edgy, dark, politically incorrect humor he'd always spewed forth.
There's no question that Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is gonna' catch some grief for what amounts to being the stunt casting of Joaquin Phoenix, an actor without a disability, to play Callahan, considered by many in the disability community, myself included, to be an iconic figure within our community.
You have to understand. Callahan didn't "overcome" his disability. He flaunted it. He immersed his readers in it, sometimes in ways that were uncomfortable and outrageous and offensive. He said things, not just about disability but about life, that we all think but we dare not say even in this golden age of political anything goes. He wrote about disabled sex, which is actually a thing (ya know?), and then wrote about it in a book called "The Night, They Say, Was Made for Love: Plus My Sexual Scrapbook."
The book is fucking brilliant and offensive and honest and true.
Callahan's quasi memoir, "Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?," is not just a brilliant book but a bold and daring call into authenticity for other folks with disabilities to stop being so fucking precious and inspirational and be whomever the fuck you are.
Callahan wrote about his past through his cartoons and, yeah, even through an album he recorded called "Purple Winos in the Rain," an album that featured an appearance by Tom Waits (of course). Callahan had a slew of admirers, a cult following I suppose you could say, but the Willamette Weekly where his cartoons regularly ran also received periodic threats due to the topics that Callahan would tackle with his simple, Steig-like graphics and visionary imagination.
While some folks will argue that a disabled actor couldn't possibly have pulled off all the demands of Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, especially given that about 20% of the film portrays Callahan when he was still walking, it's equally true that Phoenix, one of this generation's finest actors, is content to follow Van Sant's almost voyeuristic approach to Callahan. Phoenix's performance is immersed in Callahan's recovery yet never immerses itself equally in Callahan's mastery and genius and the subversive, there's that word again, ways in which he approached his life, his disability, his love life and, yeah, pretty much every damn thing about the world around him.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot likes to stare down the little intimacies of disability, including multiple shots of Callahan's leg bag leaking, a true fact or life for quads and many paraplegics but hardly worth of the attention that Van Sant gives it. What Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot doesn't do is exactly what Callahan did - look disability in the eye and give it a big ole' "fuck you" and then live with it anyway. Heck, if you look at the description of Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot cooked up by the marketing geniuses at Amazon Studios it doesn't even mention the fact that Callahan was a quadriplegic.
It mentions his drinking problem.
It mentions his catastrophic accident.
It mentions his immense talent.
Where the fuck is his disability at?
If you can't say the word, then you're sure as hell not showing it accurately on the big screen.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot works better as an addiction memoir than as a Callahan memoir. It's clear this is where where Van Sant chose to place his emphasis, though we certainly get the obligatory shots of Callahan's motorized wheelchair snaking its way through the Portland streets. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, which was easily my most anticipated film of summer 2018, is a letdown for anyone whose life was immersed in Callahan's work. It's a faux biopic that never really gets to the real Callahan, more just the footnote stuff that everybody knows and that is only occasionally interesting.
I mean, seriously. How do you make a film about someone as subversive as John Callahan and play it so damn safe?
Phoenix is fine here, at least for what he's called to do. It's another notch in his cinematic belt, though it's certainly not amongst the finest of Phoenix's performances. One can't help but wish that Robin Williams, who tried for years to get this film made, would have somehow eked out this film and this performance before his death because one can't help but think Williams would have given Callahan the edge and desperation and emotional complexity that he desperately needs here.
On the flip side, Jonah Hill continues to impress, a former one-note funny actor whom we've discovered can act. He can really, really act.
For a real glimpse inside the world of Callahan, check out the 2005 documentary Touch Me Where I Can Feel, a film where Dutch filmmaker Simone de Vries truly captures the essence of Callahan beautifully.
A self-described detractor of political correctness who didn't particularly care if people interpreted his humor as going too far, Callahan's dark humor gave light to those with disabilities who embraced his willingness to talk about things that don't get talked about and to speak uncomfortable truths in ways that made people squirm and challenged perceptions of disability.
Callahan was a fucking genius. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is disappointingly ordinary.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic