The biopic is cinema's greatest double-edged sword - while you have a wealth of unbelievably true possibilities to work with, aptly compacting someone's life into a digestible film is often much tricker than it seems. Entertainment and adhering to the facts often blur, and the focus - the soul of the person at the centre of the story - can sometimes get lost along the way. 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot' aims to bringing to the big screen the life of John Callahan, a quadriplegic artist - but can the film capture the nuances of this complex character?
Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix, 'You Were Never Really Here', 'Her') is directionless in life, relying on alcohol to get him through the lonely nights... and days. When a wild night out with new friend Dexter (Jack Black, 'Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle', 'Goosebumps', 'School of Rock') leaves him paralysed, John has some major adjustments to make in his life - both getting a hold on his alcoholism, and coming to terms with spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
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Joaquin Phoenix is an actor who utterly transforms himself into his characters - sometimes for the better, other times less so. Here, it tends to be the latter, most likely due to his attempted encapsulation of the real life John Callahan. The major issue is that, between the screenplay and the performance, John comes off as an absolute asshole for the majority of the film. There's very little that's redeeming about him, with him constantly horrendous to those around him, even those who continue to help him. What seems lacking is John's feeling of shame in his situation - he's so frequently furious, frustrated, reprimanding, that we never see him really regret his decision to drink. Granted, the film is meant to portray the negative effects of alcoholism, but even after being involved in an accident which profoundly changes his life, there's barely a sliver of goodness for the audience to connect with.
The other serious issue is that, when that redemption does begin to occur, it's in both a very pontifical and gradational way. John turns to Alcoholic Anonymous to help him deal with his drinking problem, but it's such an insider's look into the cult-ish organisation that its messages come off as excessively preachy. We actually have to endure John going through all 12 steps in order to achieve self-improvement, so much so that the latter half of the film is both unnecessarily agonising and pretentious.
There are some glimmers of hope in the film - Rooney Mara ('Mary Magdalene', 'Carol', 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo') is a breath of fresh air here as John's girlfriend Annu, bringing a much-needed touch of tenderness to the story. Jonah Hill ('War Dogs', '21 Jump Street' franchise) is also having a lot of fun as Donnie, John's AA sponsor, whose personality comes off somewhere between a hippie, a guru and Jesus. He brings the best glimpses of humour to the film, the light contrast to John's raging darkness.
John comes off as an absolute asshole for the majority of the film. There's very little that's redeeming about him, with him constantly horrendous to those around him, even those who continue to help him. What seems lacking is John's feeling of shame in his situation.
Director and co-writer Gus Van Sant ('Milk', 'Elephant', 'Good Will Hunting') sadly bears a lot of the blame for the film's downfallings. In a strange twist of styles, he chooses to blend moments of surrealism with brutal reality, a technique that never really gels. Visually, the film is fairly unremarkable otherwise - we're subjected to stereotypical tones of the 1970s, bland yet warm yellows and browns, adorned with a touch of teal pastel.
The story is also presented in a non-linear timeline, and as we jump between moments in John's life, the presentation is convoluted enough to make it difficult to keep track of when and where we are. To add to the confusion, characters dip in and out of John's life inconsistently - Rooney Mara's Annu comes and goes as is convenient to the plot - and practically no one has any kind of back story to speak of - it's not until almost the very end of the film we learn why Donnie is living such an extravagant lifestyle. There are also recurring jokes delivered by Phoenix which are stale at best on first delivery, but become eye-rollingly pathetic as the story drags on.
'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot' does itself no favours with a lead character who offers no chance of empathy from the audience, but its worst fault is its screenplay. More dismal than dark comedy, and more an advertisement for AA than a tale of redemption, this lacklustre biopic from Gus Van Sant is missing the genre's most important trait - humanity. An opportunity to show how someone can change has been sincerely missed.