There comes a point during director Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot where main character John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) attends an AA meeting and brings up his disability. It’s a fact of his life that he’s paralyzed and in a wheelchair, and he happens to be an alcoholic as well. Instead of hearing his story, meeting organizer Donnie (Jonah Hill) stops Callahan, telling him no one wants to hear that. Hill’s Donnie seems to be speaking for Van Sant himself, a man who hopes that this tale of a disabled man will compel you to watch while simultaneously being irritated that his lead character is disabled at all. As a writer with a disability, these movies already skate on thin ice, but Don’t Worry makes a case that Hollywood itself needs to tell a new disabled narrative, one that understands why disability is so important to begin with.
John Callahan (Phoenix) lives life in a wheelchair after a night of drunken carousing with a friend leaves him paralyzed in a wheelchair. Struggling with his newfound situation, and conflicted about his alcoholism, John can’t seem to figure out what he wants in life. As he tries to find a way to curb drinking and acclimate to his disability he decides to foster his love for art which gives him a new lease on life.
Almost immediately Van Sant’s feature plays like a formulaic drama about disability, ticking off every box in the “Hollywood handicap” narrative: white male disabled late in life. He has people who enter his life and change it, one of them being a female, and the other being the one to give platitudes about how John should live his life. (Disabled people need to know how to think about their life through an able-bodied talking head, you know.) Don’t Worry showcases exactly why focusing on these same tropes is dangerous. It’s hard to believe anyone would think John’s behavior is appropriate, and Van Sant uses his wheelchair as an excuse for said behavior.
A scene of John being told to go out and have sex could have been interesting, since movies about people with disabilities often present them as asexual child-people. Unfortunately, John is told to proposition his female nurse in the grossest way possible….and it actually works. The film’s entire mentality is, worst case scenario the person will say “Oh, that’s just John. He’s disabled so he’s just trying to see what he can get away with.” At best, John gets some pity sex and the ladies have a good time. Hate to tell you, Gus, but sexual harassment is sexual harassment, no matter how disabled you are. John comes off as just every average guy who thinks he deserves something, and in fact John deserves it even more because of how we’re meant to see his life, as broken, damaged, and not worth living.
There’s a sense of disjointedness to the entire affair, as if Van Sant can’t seem to figure out whether he wants to tell a story about addiction or a story about disability; Lord knows he doesn’t see any way to bridge the two. What we’re left with is a halfway interesting look at alcoholism and a boring as hell examination of living with a disability. What’s even more frustrating is, in the case of the latter, there’s little actual heart or interest in showing Callahan’s life. John Callahan was a fascinating figure – who always knew Hollywood would cast an able-bodied person to play him. He was a drunk, a divisive and controversial figure, was adopted, and somehow made it all work.
It’s evident Van Sant did little more than cursory research on Callahan, and that’s a shame as there could have been an ability to open new doors into disabled representation. For starters, Callahan’s cartoons bordered on poor taste, as evidenced by scenes of men praising him and women decrying him for his presumed misogyny and mockery of disabled people. A better script, one more interested in actively looking at disability in the context of humor, could have examined how disability does or doesn’t jive with typical methods of humor. (Prime example? I find There’s Something About Mary hilarious because of how it portrays and sends-up disability. I know not everyone feels that way.) Instead, much like the sex angle of the movie, the film treats this as a bunch of snooty jerks who can’t take a joke. John wishes to use his disability as a cover for criticism.
In a movie that’s already reductive regarding disability, one shouldn’t have ever expected a disabled actor in the lead. Joaquin Phoenix is fine, but he’s not really giving much of a performance. He’s sad when a scene call for it, happy, acerbic. There’s just nothing to give because the character is presented so basic. The script is more interested in Jonah Hill as John’s gay hippie AA-sponsor, Donnie. Hill ablesplains at every turn, telling John his “real” problems have zip to do with his disability, which would be fine, but John should be the one realizing that. Not some guy who calls the people he helps “piglets” and is presented as more excited to go to San Francisco than be available to people. And when Donnie reveals he has AIDS, the film situates it as a competition; Donnie’s trauma is WAY worse than John’s.
And then you have Rooney Mara as Swedish flight attendant, Annu. Her Swedish Chef-light accent aside, she’s little more than the supportive girlfriend. Her introduction to the movie is to tell John how “handsome” he is, pretty much the only lines she has. The film treats this as “see, John is wonderful because a woman dares to find him attractive.”
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a prime example of why Hollywood needs to break the mentality of “white male disabled late” narratives. The film takes a compelling story about a unique man and undermines him at every turn. And when it does want to focus on disability, the entire affair falls back on reductive tropes and contradicting. If movies are meant to reflect society, Van Sant sees disabled people as emotionally entitled sexual harassers.