Gus Van Sant's "Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot" comes to us as the 65 year-old writer-director is struggling with his own artistic footing. His last trio of missteps ("The Sea of Trees," "Promised Land," "Restless") were rather discouraging and hinted at a possible artistic well running dry.
This latest film seems to have re-energized Van Sant as a director, but not enough to save a screenplay filled with familiar biopic cliches. If you're looking for a triumphant comeback for Van Sant then you'll have to wait a little more.
Van Sant tackles the 1989 memoir by Portland, Oregon cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), whose booze and drug-fueled tendencies ended up paralyzing him from head to toe. Callahan had been drinking heavily since his teens and was only 21 when a car accident, with reckless party-hound Dexter (Jack Black), had him crash his VW into a lamppostand.
Dexter escaped without a scratch, but, as mentioned, not Callahan.
"Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot" is about the steps the satirical cartoonist took to better himself, despite the loss of mobility in most of his body. Physical therapy sessions, AA meetings are at the rendez-vous, and so are scenes involving Annu (miscast Rooney Mara), a Swedish physical therapist with whom John experiments sexual techniques to produce an erection.
At AA John meets Donnie (Jonah Hill), a bearded hipster that quickly turns into John's sponsor and tries to help him by confronting the inner demons still haunting him. The scenes between Hill and Phoenix, incredibly personal and rewarding, are the absolute highlights of the film. They are meant as the deliverance audiences will need in knowing things will get better for Callahan.
The film has Callahan using cartooning as an outlet for therapy. Despite barely holding on to the drawing pen located between his hands, he manages to make art that feels both personal and groundbreaking. Callahan's work, published in the Oregon newspaper Willamette Week, was not loved by all, there was an honest sting to his work that could easily rub people the wrong way.
Sure, Van Sant barely scratches sentiment and instead favors character to drive his story home, but the film, as lovely and affectionate as it could be, feels slight and not as powerful as it merits to be. This makes many scenes feel flat and uneventful and, as the film goes along, a dullness begins to creep in.
Don't look for the Van Sant that broke cinematic ground with such risk-taking endeavors as "Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho," "Elephant," and "Gerry." No, this is more along the lines of his mainstream work ("Good Will Hunting" and "Finding Forrester"). This is a conventional and unimpressive effort from Van Sant. [C+]