Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is Gus Van Sant’s first feature film since 2015’s disastrous Sea of Trees. Three years is not an unreasonable amount of time between features, but given how very, very bad Trees is, Foot can’t help but feel like a comeback. And it pretty much is, a biopic in the Van Sant tradition, that is, a little navel-gazey, well-acted, and well-executed. It has one of Van Sant’s favorite narrative devices: An emotionally stunted man talking to a spiritual advisor. And with its bright protagonist with a complicated reality, it has strong echoes of Good Will Hunting, which gives the whole thing a throwback feel. Foot is the kind of movie that would have slayed Sundance in 1997.
Today, though, we have to examine able-bodied actor Joaquin Phoenix playing disabled cartoonist John Callahan, who was paralyzed following a car accident. Disabled representation is abysmally low, both in stories told and voice permitted to tell their own stories. So it’s good Callahan’s story is being told, maybe less good it’s not being told by disabled artists. Or does the fact that some scenes depict Callahan pre-accident make Phoenix’s casting okay? I honestly don’t know. It is a very good performance from Phoenix, and Foot does include disabled actors in other roles, but part of the throwback feeling of the film is seeing an able-bodied actor “cripping up” in what is typically considered an award bait project. Are we sure there’s no other way to tell this story in 2018?
But taking what is on the screen at face value as a well-intended and even loving portrait of John Callahan, Foot is good enough. We are getting SO many biopics these days, as “based on a true story” is pretty much the only thing outside of superheroes and sequels that sells, that these right-down-the-middle interpretations are starting to feel stale. Van Sant is a good filmmaker and it’s not like Foot is BAD, it’s just not consistently engaging. The most interesting and memorable elements of the film are Callahan’s cartoons, brought to life with animation. His cartoons are dark, cynical, and often offensive, but seeing them intercut with Callahan’s emotional journey through recovery illuminates the simple jokes as more than just outré one-liners.
And Foot is an antidote to films like (the loathsome) Me Before You, which, like many films, depicts spinal injury as the end-all of life (see also: Million Dollar Baby). Following a drunk-driving accident, Callahan is paralyzed from the chest down, and yes, at first, he wants to die—he’s in terrible pain with a grim prognosis. But he recovers. Is recovery the same as walking again? No. But he gets an electric wheelchair, and his pure joy at having the freedom of movement again is one of the best scenes in the film. Foot shows that there is not just life after injury, but GOOD life, with friends and a career and sex and love.
Foot is devoted to showing the reality of Callahan’s daily life, much of which is undignified. He can’t bathe himself, his catheter bags overflow, kids have to help him back in his chair when curbs aren’t graded for access, the whole welfare/disability system SUCKS (and Foot makes a point of how being at the mercy of political agenda makes the lives of the disabled that much harder). But Callahan also discovers a passion and builds a satisfying career, he makes friends, gets sober, falls in love. His life is not depressing. (Ditto for Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, whose AIDS diagnosis and onset illness is handled in a very un-showy and un-maudlin way, and Jonah Hill is exceptionally good as Donnie.)
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a perfectly acceptable film—good, even, exactly the kind of thing Miramax would once have driven straight to Oscar glory. The acting is good, the writing is good, Jonah Hill is REALLY good, and it’s nice to see a story portray the value of life after spinal injury, and it is earnest, if at times not the most engaging portrait. But Foot is a little mundane for a subject as interesting and creative as John Callahan, and I can’t help but feel there was a fresher way to approach his biography.
Attached - Joaquin leaving a karate class in LA the other day.