Perhaps it's fitting that a flick about a paraplegic is mostly immobile, at least in its storytelling and structure. If you find my metaphor offensive, hey, I'm just trying to keep up with the movie's legless subject and political incorrectness. After all, the title of the new Gus Van Sant film is Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.
Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, a cartoonist from Portland, Oregon, whose own book is the basis for the film. Callahan's drawings were known for their macabre, oddball humor and primitive style, which both amused and offended his readers.
Fittingly, his own alcohol-addled life was just as troubled as his illustrations, as a car crash at the age of 21 left him mostly paralyzed. But he managed to persevere by expressing himself artistically, finding a loyal girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and conquering his addiction, thanks to help from an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (Jonah Hill).
"Maybe life's actually not supposed to be as meaningful as we think it is," says a member of Callahan's AA group. And perhaps the Van Sant version of Callahan's life is also not meant to be overanalyzed. But there's no denying that, despite its odd charm, the film fails to live up to its subject's potential. And that's not because of Phoenix, who is memorable and passionate. Instead, the fault lies with Van Sant's screenplay and David Marks' editing.
"There's a very fine line between creating chaos because of the adventure and creating chaos because of the dependency on it," Hill's character tells the AA group.
He's referring to alcoholism, but he might as well be referring to the filmmakers, who create storytelling chaos not because structural adventure suits the movie but because Van Sant seems to employ disjointed editing as a stylistic crutch. That style might come across as challenging or charming to some viewers, but it lessens the emotional impact and breeds unnecessary narrative confusion.
If the film were just a bit funnier or more insightful, these structural eccentricities could be partially forgiven. And, admittedly, this movie will find its audience, much like Callahan's cartoons did. But a film is not a cartoon. The latter can succeed by amusing or inspiring in small bursts, one panel at a time. But He Won't Get Far on Foot doesn't get far on screen because it should have been the equivalent of a graphic novel, not a newspaper scribble.
Most disappointing is Mara – not for her performance, but for her character's almost total vapidity. We don't understand her motivations, we know almost nothing about her, and she's given little to do. She's reduced to wheelchair candy. She deserves better – as does Jack Black, who, as a comedic throwaway, is exploited for his overacting, at least until he makes a poignant reappearance near the end. Among the supporting cast, only Hill is intriguing. Yet even his oddly subdued performance doesn't fully catch fire.
Once Callahan embraced his artistic prowess and dropped his dipsomania, he really went places, despite his injury. Van Sant's film is also disabled, but unlike Callahan, it can't conquer its disability.