Rated: R — Score: 3 Stars *** Out of 4 ****
Based in part on the memoir of the same name by John Callahan, writer/director Gus Van Zant’s frequently over-stylized "Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot" ["DWHWGOF"] hits a lot of narrative bumps on its way to a triumphant third act, making this the filmmaker’s finest effort since "Milk" in 2008.
A native of Portland, Oregon, the single-panel cartoonist Callahan (a brilliant Joaquin Phoenix) found his calling late in life and only after becoming a quadriplegic and recovering alcoholic. With two hands clutching a Flair pen, Callahan drew primitive panels which were decidedly conceived and executed in purposeful bad taste.
By comparison, Callahan’s barbed black humor made Gary Larson’s "Far Side" come off looking as tame and safe as Bil Keane’s "Family Circus."
One panel shows three lawmen in a desert standing over a toppled wheelchair with one speaking the line that also serves as the film’s title. Other frequent subjects included lesbians, house pets, religion and alcoholism but mostly it was individuals or groups with physical disabilities. Needless to say, many people — most of whom had no physical disabilities — took great offense to Callahan’s work which begs more than a few questions.
The first and most obvious: should the physical condition of an artist have a bearing on how people judge their creations? Is it acceptable for a quad to make fun of himself and those like him with off-color observational humor?
Van Zant doesn’t get around to these prickly and subjective issues until the third act although many panels – some of them animated – are dotted throughout the length of the film.
For the first 45 or so minutes, Van Zant’s movie more resembles a Be Bop jazz composition, which is aided greatly by an atypical score from composer Danny Elfman.
Presented wildly out of sequence, this stretch covers the last few, hazy, booze-fueled days prior to the car wreck which changed the 21-year-old Callahan’s life forever, the years after when he hit the bottle even harder and eventually bottomed out and finally time spent in substance abuse group therapy. Van Zant keeps things interesting during this period by employing some tricked-out visuals including vertical elliptical screen panning and single passages of dialogue delivered in multiple locations over the space of decades.
The weakest link in the narrative is the time spent with the group therapy which is overpopulated with too-easy stock characters (the overweight white girl, the angry veteran, the fey senior white guy, the privileged housewife). The exception here is a slimmed down and bearded Jonah Hill as Donnie, a wealthy gay trust baby who hosts the meetings in his house which could best be described as Liberace light. Instead of the usual namby-pamby, there-there, treacle sugar-coating, Donnie speaks to his A.A. members (whom he lovingly refers to as "piglets") with blunt, face-smacking directness. It is arguably the finest performance of Hill’s career and could eventually lead to his third Academy Award nomination.
Once Van Zant calms down, allows the story to breathe, stops relying on the bells and whistles and lets Phoenix strut his righteous stuff, "DWHWGFOF" takes on a far more organic and relaxed (not to be confused with safe) air. For over an hour, we witness the sausage factory and finally get to the opportunity to taste the finished fire-grilled product, along with the peppers, onions and mozzarella.
Make no mistake, the factory part was needed but for an artist as conflicted, polarizing and complex as Callahan, the final result demands further attention and Van Zant ultimately delivers the goods.
A man never fully at peace with his many demons, Callahan finally finds his calling and a (maybe fictional) romantic connection. Played by Phoenix’s current off-screen love interest Rooney Mara, the Swedish therapist-turned-flight attendant Annu may or may not even be real, but it makes no difference as none of the other characters fit the same bill. It’s worth mentioning that Mara also appeared in the recent low radar "Mary Magdalene" as the title character alongside Phoenix who portrayed Jesus Christ.
Also worth noting was the heavy protest levied against the production as far back as January of this year from the radical left, New England-based Ruderman Family Foundation which had major (largely uninformed) issues with Callahan being portrayed by Phoenix rather than a real-life disabled actor (Hollywood Debates Who Should Play Disabled Characters).
"DWHWGFOF" is the politically correct crowd’s worst possible nightmare and will send them into a dose-dive, tailspin tizzy. A man disowned at birth by his mother drifts into a life of substance abuse and then becomes a quad, only to make a mockery of acceptable social decorum while finding roaring success as a member of the press within the very bastion of staunch blue state territory. The irony is completely unhinged and totally off the charts.
"DWHWGFOF" opens on July 13 in select cities.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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