Jonah Hill

FilmWatch Weekly: Gus Van Sant talks about his biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan

"Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" follows Callahan's journey to sobriety after being paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident

One well-known Portlander tells the story of another in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s new film based on the memoir by the late cartoonist John Callahan.

Van Sant has had his eye on Callahan’s life story for a couple of decades, with Robin Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book, attached at one point to play the lead role. After Williams’ death, the project’s realization seemed unlikely. But Van Sant recruited Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting the two after Phoenix’s breakout role in “To Die For (1995),” and a fascinating supporting cast, and here we are.

If you lived in Northwest Portland in the 1990s, the spectacle of the orange-haired Callahan speeding down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair was a familiar one. Even if you didn’t recognize him on the street, however, you would have almost certainly been familiar with the outrage he frequently stoked with his squiggly, single-frame cartoons, which ran regularly in Willamette Week from 1983 until his death in 2010, and skewered race, gender, and other sacred cows (including disability) with politically incorrect impunity.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT.

“Don’t Worry” focuses less on Callahan’s notoriety than his journey to sobriety, which began some time after the horrific car accident in California that left him paralyzed and bitter. Among the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that Callahan reluctantly joins are characters played by the likes of Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, and Kim Gordon, who’s especially convincing as a wealthy Portland housewife with a drinking problem. The group’s de facto leader is Donnie, a self-mocking sober hedonist played with impressive savoir faire by an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill.

The rest of the cast includes Jack Black as the drunk driver behind the wheel for the fateful wreck and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s almost too-angelic nurse/girlfriend. Newcomer Tony Greenhand deserves special mention as Callahan’s wry, stringy-haired caretaker, but the less said about Carrie Brownstein’s brief appearance as a bureaucrat the better.

Van Sant was in town last month for an advanced screening of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” held at Cinema 21, with proceeds benefitting the John Callahan Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. I met with him the afternoon of the screening at a downtown Portland hotel, where he discussed the evolution of the movie, its visual aesthetic, and why he didn’t shoot it here in town.

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