He darts heedlessly through traffic in a motorized wheelchair, head bobbing above the grills of large, Detroit automobiles. Their drivers screech to a halt in terror all around him in scenes that look like they could be the 1970s precursor to "Jackass."
John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), late cartoonist for Willamette Week, an alternative weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon, seems to have a death wish in the film "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," directed by Gus Van Sant ("Milk"). If so it's understandable. Callahan lost all feeling and movement from his chest down in an automobile accident when he was only 21 years old, and I wondered if any notoriety or success could ever make up for it.
"He Won't Get Far on Foot" tears through Callahan's life just like its subject tears through city streets, the intensely nonlinear style is apropos to Callahan's life and art. Callahan drank heavily, we learn, starting in his early teens, so his life was a little blackout-plagued. The film conveys this by providing a portrait of disconnected beats. He might be walking a warm California beach one moment and raising hell from a wheelchair to his live-in nurse (Mike Webber) the next ("bring me more goddamn alcohol" is generally the gist of it).
The style sets up a fantastic sequence about a third of the way in, which Jack Black anchors with a memorable cameo as Callahan's impromptu drinking buddy. They embark on a heroic night of bar-hopping, which drifts into the unnervingly placid moment that brutally altered Callahan's life.
Van Sant wrote the script using Callahan's autobiography and conversations with him before he died in the summer of 2010. Having only read a portion of the book, I can only guess that if it veers into big-picture reflections on the tragic irony of that accident, it is with Callahan's sardonic, skeptical wit. Van Sant's version captures that spirit, but also feels tugged toward earnest soul searching the more it delves into Callahan's effort to put his life back together.
Actor Jonah Hill provides the vehicle for those musings as an Alcoholics Anonymous guru giving somewhat laborious disquisitions on AA topics. Maybe that was the reality, but I kept hoping Van Sant would pull back from the sermons for a slightly more dispassionate and independent point of view.
More engaging are the details: Callahan's attempt to accept his fate during the initial days and weeks after the accident and the rabid alcoholism. We're told a little about what kind of boyhood could lead to it, but unfortunately we never see it. We only see how bad it got: Callahan is shown begging, prone and immobile in the aftermath of the car wreck, for a responding officer to fetch him another bottle.
There are many astonishingly candid moments in this film, but it's very difficult to find meaning in a random encounter that could have happened to anyone driving drunk. We are all authors of our own life stories: The film seems intent on telling us that. But the degree is the real question, and exactly where it intersects with the outrages and mysteries of an uncaring universe. That point often seems to recede from view the harder we look, and it is never more obscure than in the realm of a mainstream entertainment.
Director Van Sant specializes in exploring the lives of damaged, challenged men (sometimes during "Won't Get Far" I thought of Mike, the narcoleptic street walker in "My Own Private Idaho" (1991) portrayed so movingly by Joaquin's late brother River). And he succeeded at it within a biographical context in "Milk" (2008). But real people have a connection to the living that might tempt an artist to give in to sentimentality that's almost inherent to the medium, and certainly exacerbated by trappings of biography. Among other shortcomings, "Won't Get Far" runs out of room about halfway through Callahan's life. It never shies from tough questions, but answering them is something else when you lop off the end of the story.
Callahan faced one of the toughest questions every day, which is how to go forward without looking back. Why did this tragedy happen to him, and did the art and career it inspired make up for it? Looked at another way, is the life or the art the impetus for the film? “Won’t Get Far,” at least in its truncated form, cannot answer all of that convincingly, but its qualities counter its limitations enough to make it worth seeing.