Film Review: Don't Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Gus Van Sant’s latest is a distractingly disjointed adaptation of the famed quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan’s memoir, saved by committed performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill.
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Pinning down the common attributes of a typical Gus Van Sant movie is a near-impossible task. In his wide-ranging filmography that spans various genres, the writer-director habitually toggles between ominous and experimental features (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) and conventional dramas with a dash of effective schmaltz (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester). His middling, often aimless Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (from Amazon Studios), which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival on Friday night, finds the filmmaker at an odd intersection, pulling from his various storytelling sensibilities to yield a quasi-biopic of the famous, defiantly provocative Portland cartoonist John Callahan. The outcome is a freewheeling exercise that disarranges the story’s 1970s-set chronology (mostly to a fault) and builds in disjointed fragments. Adapted for the screen by Van Sant from Callahan’s memoir, Don’t Worry plays more like a collection of fleeting memories: some ordinary, others genuinely worthy of note.

This approach only partly works in following the sharp-witted Callahan, who goes from a rock-bottom-hitting drunk to a quadriplegic (as a result of a catastrophic car crash one tragic night) and eventually a recovering alcoholic in a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. We meet John (Joaquin Phoenix, in a typically reliable performance) in the midst of one of his recovery sessions, surrounded by people telling their own rock-bottom stories of addiction. His group is capably led by the lenient, longhaired, chest-bearing Donnie (a terrific Jonah Hill, who once again surprises with his range), a laidback gay man from family wealth.

In its progression, the film occasionally cuts back to this circle, using it as a narrative home base of sorts. Along the way, we follow the pre-accident John through flashbacks, as he dangerously races down busy crossroads in pursuit of booze and gets blindly wasted with his buddy Dexter (Jack Black), the man behind the wheel at the time of the accident, who survives the crash with minor injuries. We also track randomly spliced accounts of the accident’s immediate and long-term aftermath as John navigates his disability: He receives a renewed education in sex, deals with his caregiver, and continues his struggle with alcoholism and so on. In addition, the story ventures out to John’s search for his birth mother (who gave him up as a baby), a plotline that feels like a distracting tangent despite Van Sant’s repeated attempts to amplify it. Moreover, Don’t Worry introduces a romantic interest named Annu in due course. The Swedish caretaker-turned-stewardess is played by Rooney Mara with a Tinkerbell-meets-Rosemary Woodhouse look. It’s a thankless, underwritten part that unfortunately wastes Mara’s talents.

You might be wondering, “What about John Callahan’s art?” It’s certainly in there as the backbone of the film, with his uniquely politically incorrect humor coloring the story with much-needed personality as John climbs to fame. But the overtly “Sundance-y indie” choice to animate his drawings every now and then is a curious artistic gamble that feels like an empty afterthought. In the end, some pieces work on their own, but never quite come together to form an articulate whole.

As noted during the film’s post-screening Q&A (attended by the members of Callahan’s family and the cast), Van Sant was initially approached nearly two decades ago by the late Robin Williams, who optioned Callahan’s memoir with the desire to play the celebrated artist. The project never came to fruition then. It makes one wonder if the extended delay played any role in diminishing what Don’t Worry could have become. The film’s good intentions towards telling a supple, uplifting tale that respectfully honors Callahan’s large appetite for life and absurdist humor are undeniable. Yet Van Sant’s latest falls short of its purpose, perhaps taking the audience’s knowledge of (and concern for) its subject for granted. Despite committed performances across the board, I left the film craving a deeper, more conventionally attentive character study.

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