Gus Van Sant is a director of outsiders. His filmography includes stories of gay hustlers (My Own Private Idaho) and a large-thumbed hitchhiker who moves to an all-woman ranch (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues); figures including Harvey Milk, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie have been subjects of interest for him. So the director should, theoretically, feel right at home telling the story of John Callahan, an eccentric quadriplegic cartoonist from Portland, Oregon, who traveled a long road to recovery from alcoholism.
Sadly, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Van Sant’s adaptation of Callahan’s memoir (of the same name) does little justice to this rich and complex storytelling opportunity. Joaquin Phoenix (who previously starred in To Die For, one of Van Sant’s best) naturally shines as the ornery weirdo whose lows oscillate between screaming at his attendant for a bottle of booze and falling out of his wheelchair in front of an audience of shocked teenagers and having his catheter come loose. Even though cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women, The Bling Ring) succeeds in staying true to the ’70s setting with warm sepia tones, neither he nor the director manages to make present-day Phoenix seem believable as a 21-year-old, the age Callahan was when he got into his life-altering car accident.
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This biopic also comes off as a little too precious at times, especially with the inserts of animated cartoons, as if they come to life on Callahan’s sketchpad. The timeline jumps between flashbacks and present day, both of which showcase some distractingly unsightly wigs on our leading man, make this film even more surreal — but not in a good way.
Callahan’s hair isn’t the only thing that requires getting used to. The goldilocked Jonah Hill, as his flamboyant Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, initially seems more like a caricature. Rooney Mara, as Callahan’s therapist, sports a Swedish accent borrowed from her The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo character. The cameos from Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto and Jack Black (as Dexter, the drunk party animal responsible for Callahan’s injury) all add up to too much. (At the very least, there are a lot of great performances.)
If there’s one thing that Van Sant does very well here, it’s creating a humanizing anchor at the center of the story. Despite some distracting narrative choices and sketchy character development (especially with Mara’s character, who, of course, turns into a love interest), the film does eventually find its footing. Ultimately, Callahan — lovingly, sometimes complexly portrayed as an anti-hero type with a problematic nature — goes around visiting old friends, seeking closure from people he’s held grudges against for many years. The last scene shared between Callahan and Dexter, who was in the driver’s seat but came out uninjured, is the most tender, and also most tragic, moment in the entire movie.
Still, Don’t Worry often feels like the promising debut of an up-and-comer who got lucky with a big-name cast rather than a return-to-form film by someone as esteemed as Van Sant.