Review: ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot’, Joaquin Phoenix Shines In Gus Van Sant’s Disability Drama

*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in DC on July 20th.*

Gus Van Sant is one of those filmmakers we are constantly told is one of the greats, in fact at today’s world premiere of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot he was introduced as such. But more often than not it isn’t remotely true and the last ten years have been especially grim. Sea of Trees, anyone? But when Van Sant hits, he can be one of the greats. He just needs the right material. Milk was the right material. To Die For was the right material. Don’t Worry, which finds Van Sant reunited with To Die For‘s Joaquin Phoenix, is also the right material, and despite a few cliches from the “triumph of the human spirit” rulebook, he’s delivered a crowd pleasing movie with two potentially awards-worthy performances.

In the works for years, and once with Robin Williams eyed for the lead role, Don’t Worry centers on controversial Portland cartoonist John Callahan and his triumphs over alcoholism. Actually, it’s more than that, John must also triumph over being a quadriplegic, and from being abandoned by his mother at a young age. All of these life hurdles make up just a fraction of the massive story Van Sant aims to tell, broken down into mixed-up timelines that follow him as a hardcore alcoholic, to getting into a nasty car accident with his buddy Dexter (Jack Black), to learning to overcome it through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program, and finally his career as a cartoonist.

Most of the narrative goes through John’s AA meetings, as he recounts his tale of woe to his sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), and the group’s other members, referred to as “piglets”, and not in a way that is derogatory by any means. And these folks won’t take any of John’s crap, nor will they just sit back and listen to his sob stories. Udo Kier, the fantastic Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, and Mark Webber make up the core members of the group, and the film is at its best when everything is set up through these scenes.

Otherwise it becomes a little bit of a mess because Van Sant just has too much to say. He also explores Callahan’s relationship with Annu (Rooney Mara, given nothing to do), a flight attendant who just drifts into the hospital one day and becomes his lover for some reason. There’s also Callahan’s quest to find his real mother, the one who left him an orphan, and whose mystical presence he attributes to his decision to quit drinking once and for all.  There’s actually a lot more going on, too, while somehow Van Sant finds tons of time to show Callahan racing around town in his wheelchair just goofing off. Like tons of time. Too much. Taking a page from American Splendor, Van Sant intercuts cartoons featuring many of Callahan’s most notable pieces, almost as signposts to each stage of his life.

It gets unwieldy, but when that happens Van Sant turns to the performances by Phoenix and Hill to hold everything together. Phoenix has never been better, wonderfully capturing John’s evolution from reckless drunk to sober-but-divisive cartoonist, all while never losing his biting sense of humor. I would say the script, penned by Van Sant himself, does John a disservice in the early going. All we see of him is being a fall-down stupid drunk and not much else. It’s hard to see what makes John special. But as he begins to grow into his own, with the help of the 12 Steps, we finally get to see why so many people seem to be rooting for him to succeed.

At this point it’s not fair to call Jonah Hill a revelation every time he has a strong role. He’s been so go so often that we should be used to it, but I think his performance as Donnie is the best he’s been. Portraying the flamboyantly gay Donnie could have led to a misguided stereotype of a character, but Hill never slips into caricature. Of the many characters that arrive to help John in his many moments of need, Donnie leaves the most emotional impact.

You can see Van Sant’s admiration of Callahan in every frame. There’s just so much that he wants to share about Callahan that he can’t bear to let anything go. And while that prevents Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot from being great, Van Sant will have audiences cheering (and crying) in tribute to Callahan’s life.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5