Thursday, October 11, 2018

Movie Review: Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gus Van Sant.
Written by: Gus Van Sant and John Callahan and Jack Gibson & William Andrew Eatman based on the book by John Callahan.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (John Callahan), Jonah Hill (Donnie), Rooney Mara (Annu), Jack Black (Dexter), Tony Greenhand (Tim), Beth Ditto (Reba), Mark Webber (Mike), Ronnie Adrian (Martingale), Kim Gordon (Corky), Udo Kier (Hans), Carrie Brownstein (Suzanne).
I remember listening to Gus Van Sant’s interview with Marc Maron around the time Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot came out in theaters, where Van Sant mentioned that this was a project first brought to him by Robin Williams years ago, and the whole thing just didn’t come together – that Van Sant had a tough time cracking how to tell the story. When it came back to him again, he thought he figured it out – but I don’t think he really did. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is an odd movie, as it seems to want to combine two things that Van Sant can do very well – the kind of inspirational “Oscar bait” (although I hate that term) film about overcoming adversity that Van Sant did well with Good Will Hunting and Milk, and something more expressionistic and daring – more interested in fleeting moments, than the story itself – which has defined much of Van Sant’s work since 2000 in films like Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park. It’s an uneasy mixture that has scenes butting up against each other in strange ways, and the whole movie never really coheres. There are moments that work, but they are few and far between. Out of the talented ensemble cast, really only Joaquin Phoenix, and in one scene Jack Black, are all that good. There is a movie here, somewhere, but Van Sant didn’t crack it.
The story centers on John Callahan (Phoenix), an alcoholic who is paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident – although even that doesn’t stop his drinking, at least not right away. He will eventually decide to get sober – and joins AA, in a group led by Donnie (Jonah Hill). Also helping in his recovery is his comic work – he always did it, but pretty much had to reteach himself to draw after the accident, and his comics are defined by their crude drawings, and humor that often offended people. He also starts a relationship of sorts with Annu (Rooney Mara), a Swedish woman he meets when she is in charge of his physical therapy.
The film drifts back and forth in time, although I found it hard to discern any real rhyme or reason in the way Van Sant structured the film. The drifting timeline allows Van Sant to vary the scenes a little bit – so we don’t get scenes of him getting drunk stacked one on top of the other, or scenes in those AA meetings stacked in the same way. It doesn’t really help – the movie is still over-repetitive – but it does a little.
Honestly, I think the scenes in AA are the weakest ones in the film. The scenes seemed design to give the various character’s deep monologues to deliver, and awards friendly clips of dialogue, but most of it rings hollow – cliché upon cliché. It doesn’t help that I don’t think Hill is very good as Donnie – Hill is a talented actor, but here, I don’t think he really gets a handle on this character. He doesn’t want to make him into a gay stereotype, but it comes close anyway. None of the other members of the group are given much of anything to do. But I need to correct myself, because these are not the weakest scenes in the film – those would be anything involving Rooney Mara. It isn’t Mara’s fault – she is one of the best actresses currently working right now – but Annu is such a nothing of a role. You kind of want to call her a manic pixie dream girl, but she isn’t even given that much depth. It’s one of the worst written/conceived roles I can remember.
The best moments are basically of Phoenix by himself – as he is drifting through either his alcoholism, or trying to come through it – or trying to find the mother who gave him up for adoption. Jack Black shows up in two sequences of the movie – the first, he is basically doing the same old Jack Black shtick, as Dexter, a drinking buddy of Callahan’s, who was driving the car when the accident happened. The next is years later in the scene we are expecting when the two get together again – but this time, those deeply felt emotions are earned, and they work as they don’t anywhere else in the movie.
It’s been a difficult decade for Van Sant in terms of his films – I didn’t even realize until I was looking at his filmography that I missed his last two films – Promised Land, an eco-drama and would be awards player that never took off, and Sea of Trees, his critically maligned Cannes entry, that I don’t think ever saw a real release in North America. He hasn’t really had a hit of any kind since 2008’s Milk – and the quartet of films that I think represent the best work of his career – Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park – is even further behind him. I’m not ready to write off Gus Van Sant – Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot has moments that work, and work in a very Gus Van Sant kind of way. But he didn’t really figure out how to bring this movie together – and the result shows that.

No comments:

Post a Comment