Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (2018) (Sundance)

Sundance 2018: ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’ + ‘Juliet, Naked’

These two films with promising pedigrees fail to register as more than disappointing tweeners.

While it seems impossible to compare two wildly different films like Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Juliet, Naked, they’re both fueled by the birth (or re-birth) of an artist. Like any birth, it’s a slow, painful process that involves blood, sweat, tears, and various other bodily fluids. Unfortunately, both films fail to adequately capture the intensity of their artistic heroes.

Gus Van Sant’s latest, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, is a frustratingly uneven exploration of the life of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix). Before he was a cartoonist, John was a drunk. Actually, after he became a cartoonist, he was still a drunk. John is one of those alcoholics who can literally drink booze like water. Even after a drunk-driving accident leaves him a quadriplegic, the lure of alcohol outweighs all logic and reason.

John has demons, to be sure, and he’s eager to share them with anyone he encounters. For instance, he knows three things about his mother; she was Irish, had red hair, and was a school teacher. Oh yeah, she also gave him up for adoption when he was an infant. John’s resulting bitterness informs nearly every frame of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

Working from the late cartoonist’s own memoir, Van Zant (Promised Land, 2012, Milk, 2008) wisely rejects a linear structure in favor of something a little more provocative. He understands that watching people drink grows tedious very quickly, so he mixes the past and present into a tortured portrait of a man who enjoys the chaos of addiction.

After his car accident with fellow alcoholic Dexter (Jack Black in just the right dosage), John meets a physical therapist named Annu (Rooney Mara in a lamentably small dose). Their budding romance is thoroughly unconvincing within the context of the film, as an intelligent, level-headed woman like Annu has absolutely no motivation to fall for this unrepentant and self-loathing alcoholic. It’s a major failing of the film, as much of John’s struggle from the depths of alcoholism is attributed to Annu’s steadying influence.

The remaining thanks for John’s rehabilitation falls largely to Alcoholics Anonymous. There, John comes under the tutelage of a no-nonsense sponsor named Donnie (Jonah Hill doing his best work to date). Donnie takes John through the 12 Steps with an emotional baseball bat, challenging his self-loathing and lack of faith in something bigger than himself. John, ever the smart ass, eventually accepts the existence of a higher power in Raquel Welch’s nether regions.

Once John begins his recovery, much of the film’s energy dissipates. Phoenix is so good that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. His perfect blend of cocksure jerk and lovable misfit brings the complicated Callahan to life. Zant’s script, however, struggles to capture the creative epiphany that steers the film’s final act. John’s humble beginnings as a cartoonist occur almost on a whim, which deprives Phoenix the chance to really shine in the finalé. Though art clearly played an important part in saving John’s life, it doesn’t pack the same dramatic urgency as, say, Pekar’s therapeutic artwork in American Splendor. Ironically, Callahan died less than two weeks after Pekar in July, 2010.

Ultimately, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a frustrating tweener. It’s not funny enough to keep you smiling, insightful enough to make you think, or sensational enough to shock you.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot Rating: 5

Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O’Dowd in Juliet, Naked (Sundance)

Equally disappointing is the latest Nick Hornby adaptation, Juliet, Naked. Though the whimsy factor is high, director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother, 2011) never finds his narrative rhythm. The result is a disjointed collection of scenes that don’t coalesce into something more profound.

Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) is one of those soulful indie rockers who spanned an entire career with one album. He poured his soul into that album — a self-absorbed rumination about a love affair gone bad — and then receded into the milquetoast fabric of the ’90s.

His disappearance didn’t stop a collection of deeply disturbed fans from obsessing over his every lyric. Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) leads an internet chat group that endlessly debates Crowe’s whereabouts, including the validity of a photograph that looks so blurry even Bigfoot hunters would call it shenanigans.

Duncan’s girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) doesn’t get the whole Crowe obsession, and she certainly doesn’t appreciate the amount of time Duncan dedicates to his hobby. She wants to start a family, but she can’t possibly compete with the perfection of a rock ‘n’ roll ghost. After she invades Duncan’s website and leaves a scathing review of Crowe’s previously unreleased demo tape, “Juliet, Naked”, she receives a mysterious email that takes her boring life into exciting new directions.

Byrne is delightful in everything she does. The problem is that Annie is a total bore. She works at the cultural museum in a small town, has a wacky lesbian sister, and lets men largely dictate the direction of her life. Essentially, Annie is little more than a glorified love interest in her own story.

The star of the show, to Annie’s detriment, is Tucker Crowe. He’s left ex-wives and fatherless children all over the world. One kid, Jackson (Azhy Robertson), functions as his wisecracking pet who occasionally spouts moral platitudes. Nearly all of the mildly amusing moments in Juliet, Naked revolve around Crowe’s paternity issues, including the film’s most memorable scene, in which all of his estranged loved ones converge on one room. Crowe, who isn’t a bad guy despite his reckless irresponsibility, tries to soothe everyone’s wounded egos with predictably zany results.

While Hornby adaptations have traditionally been reliable (High Fidelity, About a Boy), Juliet, Naked is a surprisingly pedestrian affair. The lack of humor or tension traces back to a love triangle that falls utterly flat. Much like Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, this tweener is fitfully entertaining at best; listless and predictable at worst.

Juliet, Naked Rating: 5