When Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the latest from Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, To Die For, Milk) defies expectations, it’s a glorious thing.
But when it plays out pretty much how most films about a character dealing with an addiction do, the result is something surprisingly stilted and mundane, which is doubly curious considering the film’s exceptional cast.
Based on the autobiography by the late cartoonist John Callahan (played with deep reverence and no pathos by Joaquin Phoenix), the film follows a handful of timelines in his life, all of which eventually connect and get us to a place in his journey where we feel he has the tools to survive and thrive, without knowing 100 percent that he won’t fall of the wagon again along the way.
Aside from a few brief flashbacks to childhood, the oldest timeline involves the last day when Callahan could walk. He’s living an aimless, drunken life in Portland and ends up going to a succession of parties and bars this night with a new acquaintance (Jack Black). The two essentially attempt to outdrink the other when a horrible accident leaves Callahan almost entirely paralyzed, with limited use of his arms, and no desire to quit drinking. But after a series of low points involving being stuck in his apartment with no access to booze (thanks to his horrible attendant Tim, played by newcomer Tony Greenhand), he reluctantly goes to his first 12-step meeting, run by the wonderfully odd and charming Donnie (an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill, who is simultaneously one of the funniest and most tragic figures in the film).
There’s an entire movie that could be made about Donnie and his dedicated group of folks whom he sponsors, including characters played by Beth Ditto, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Udo Kier, and former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon. And while the group sometimes feels simply like a collection of colorful characters, there are times when one of their stories takes center stage and raises the stakes in a film meant to be a well-meaning, dark comedy.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’s other storylines include time spent with the self-help group, from the time Callahan joins until he ends his time with Donnie after a long, painful road to forgiveness, redemption, and the type of healing that leaves scars on the inside. We also get glimpses at John’s rehabilitation and the close friendship he forms with Annu (Rooney Mara), a therapist who not only helps him maximize his arm usage but makes him feel like a human being again. Callahan is not above letting the attention of pretty woman—even if it’s part of her job—boost his sense of self-worth just a bit.
The film pays special attention to Callahan’s birth as a talented cartoonist, whose work was often tasteless, rude, politically incorrect, and almost always quite funny. I especially loved that he was afraid of losing his disability checks, so he hides the fact that he was starting to make a living as an illustrator from his case worker (Carrie Brownstein).
As much as we may have seen films about people overcoming physical and emotional disabilities many times in the past, there is something about the last third of Don’t Worry that really sticks the landing as Callahan must confront the final steps of the sobriety process, including making amends and forgiving those that he blamed for many of his personal failures, before and after the accident. Phoenix takes what could have been cliched moments and gives them a spirit and energy that is flawless and moved me a great deal. His one-on-one scenes with Hill are the highlights of the movie, and the way their relationship plays out is both unexpected and inevitable. Van Sant and his team aren’t going for easy tears (and it would not have taken much to make that happen), but instead are going for a story rich on interesting characters going through the motions of a familiar journey.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a mixed bag as a drama and a story of working the steps of recovery, but there are too many flashes of hilarity and darkly interesting insight to dismiss it entirely. Since I’d watch Phoenix stand in the middle of an intersection and director traffic for two hours, I actually thought his portrayal (as well as performances from Hill and Mara) carries the day.
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