A Cartoonist Like No Other

By Kate Teves

The gods/algorithms of Amazon delivered another winner last week. It involved one actor who annoys me, one actor who used to annoy me, one actress who annoys me, and one actor I adore. Oh, and it almost involved an actor that everyone adores, myself included. Let’s get started.

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John Callahan cowboy

The Film:

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot tells the real-life story of cartoonist John Callahan. The title of the film, poorly chosen though it may be, comes from one of Callahan’s cartoons. (Why couldn’t they just call it Callahan?)

In his youth, Callahan was a reckless alcoholic headed nowhere right. One day his life as he knew it shattered to pieces when a drunk friend plowed their car into a utility pole at 90 miles an hour. Callahan, aged 21 years old, became a quadriplegic (his friend walked away—unscathed on the outside, ruined on the inside).

After the accident, Callahan continued to drink, trying and failing to find any purpose in his new life. But one day, after what the film describes as a kind of epiphany or vision, he stopped entirely. Almost simultaneously, a new passion for comics took off. He used a whisper of movement in his shoulder to maneuver his arm just enough to push a pen across a notebook. Shortly thereafter he began publishing in the local paper.

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The comics often poked fun at disability, flying in the face of America’s rising PC culture. They were met with plenty of hate mail, but enough people recognized that Callahan’s art was ironically working to elevate the status of disabled people. He depicted the blind, the deaf, the handicapped, the paralyzed, and the amputated people as complex human beings, capable of humor and self-awareness.

The Problems:

There are some surprisingly bad editing problems in this Gus Van Sant-directed film which will annoy some film buffs. But if you can overlook them and focus on some great acting, some great directing, and a hell of a life, then you’ll do just fine.

Some have criticized the film for making such a big deal out of Callahan’s recovery and ignoring his progression as an artist, his portraiture, his songwriting, his education, and so on. Myopia is a problem in any 90-minute project, so instead of griping, start a GoFundMe for a sequel. I’d love to see one.

Finally, some have criticized the project for casting an able-bodied actor in this role. I think even Callahan would laugh at that critique.

The actor who annoys me:

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It’s hard not to get annoyed at someone who announces they are “retiring” from acting, as if acting is a career like, say, potato farming or coal mining. And when Joaquin Phoenix announced this a few years ago, I just wanted to slap his SXSW face and send him back to Marfa.

This week, friends have expressed shock when I’ve uttered my overall anti-Joaquin stance. They have all protested by mentioning his role in Gladiator. Well, I thought that movie was dumb. So.

And his brilliant performance as Johnny Cash notwithstanding, Mr. Phoenix has to work hard to win me over in his films.

And win-me-over he did. He was cast in the lead role of John Callahan, and he brought a terrific combination of frustration, humor, charm, and anger.

The actor who used to annoy me:

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For years this guy has reminded me of a permanent 7th grader who could recite every episode of Beavis and Butthead, but who would faint at the prospect of actually holding a conversation, much less a door.

And even though School of Rock was one of the most delightful movies of all time, he played this same annoying archetype for much of the film.

In Don’t Worry…, he plays the man who slams the car that forever changes Callahan’s life. There is a particularly poignant scene when Callahan visits him twenty years later, and Black does a beautiful job portraying the tragic, complicated emotions of a character racked by guilt.

The actress who annoys me:

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I’ve always found people to be more interesting when they use facial muscles. Strange, I know. So stiff-as-a-board Rooney Mara has not, typically, been one of my favorites. But in this movie, she was darling, perhaps because she was playing an Icelandic (?) flight attendant, and the icy thing worked for her.

It is not clear, however, whether her character really needed to be included in this film. For the sake of tightening the story, the editors probably could have cut her out entirely, but it was nice to imagine - truthfully or not - that Callahan found a fulfilling love life after his accident.

The actor I adore:

Jonah Hill

Jonah Hill was introduced to America as a comedic actor, and to a certain extent he is introduced in this film as a comedic actor too.

But as in other projects, his more serious moments steal the show. He is outstanding as Callahan’s sponsor and friend, and the chemistry between Hill and Phoenix is enough to make you want to sign up for a road trip with them…to, say, Marfa.

The actor everyone adores who isn’t in the film:

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Twenty years ago, Robin Williams read Callahan’s autobiography and was so moved that he wanted to write a script with Gus Van Sant and play the lead role of Callahan. He began some drafts but after Callahan died abruptly in 2010, the project fell by the wayside.

While Williams certainly brought marvelous complexity to his roles, it feels like a shameful waste of the imagination to spend too much time wondering how his portrayal would have been different. Phoenix’s execution is brilliant, with a dark recklessness that feels authentic to the character.

The Takeaway:

5 out of 5 slices!

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5 out of 5 slices!