Gus Van Sant is at his best when he points his camera at those on the outskirts of society, be they Good Will Hunting’s sharp-tongued janitor who happens to be a math genius, Drugstore Cowboy’s quartet of pharmacy-robbing addicts, or Milk’s gay politician fighting for LGBT rights from San Francisco City Hall.
That’s precisely why the filmmaker is a perfect fit to tell the story of John Callahan, the quadriplegic Portland cartoonist whose work was marked by shaky lines and a giddy dismissal of tact. One famous Callahan comic features two klansmen in full regalia: “Don’t you love it,” one asks, “when they’re still warm from the dryer?”
According to Van Sant, the Callahan biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot has been waiting in the wings for years, ever since Robin Williams reached out to the director in the 1990s for help turning Callahan’s memoir into a film. Dusted off following Williams’s untimely death in 2014, Don’t Worry secured Joaquin Phoenix to play Callahan and snagged some financing from Amazon, and now, the finished product is here.
For both good and ill, it slots in comfortably with the rest of Van Sant’s work from the last decade: It’s compassionately made and graced with subtle, artsy touches, but it’s also presented with a slight tentativeness, as if fearful of alienating a wide audience.
The structure of the film is quintessentially Van Sant, moving backward and forward through Callahan’s adult years while pausing at milestones along the way. A key moment is the drunken car accident that left Callahan unable to walk, as is his embrace of art as way to express both his frustration and pitch-black humor.
But the core of Don’t Worry is Callahan’s battle with alcoholism, something he beats with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and a small group of former addicts, led by the loving yet firm Donnie (Jonah Hill). It’s an impressive recovery story that avoids the typical redemptive beats and sweaty detox montages, instead highlighting how former alcoholics often have to treat untreated psychological wounds without their medicine of choice.
In Callahan’s case, those wounds were the scars of never knowing his birth mother and being sexually abused as a child. Van Sant, however, pulls his punches with this tricky material; while those details are woven through this story, they aren’t given nearly as much weight as Callahan’s drinking and sobriety.
Strangely, the same goes for his cartooning: Despite art being such a major part of Callahan’s life, Van Sant seems more concerned with how Callahan begged for validation rather than how he found a way to survive by clutching a pen between his palsied hands.
Those storytelling flaws are a lot easier to let slide thanks to Don’t Worry’s fantastic cast. Going beyond a mere physical transformation in order to portray someone with a disability, Phoenix perfectly embodies the snarky bite of Callahan’s personality and his undercurrent of tenderness, even when he’s bombing around the city in his wheelchair.
And even better is Hill, who offers some career-best work as Donnie: He’s a real-life figure with some quaint affectations (long hair, cigarette holder, a penchant for ending every phone call with the entreaty “Drink water”), but Hill doesn’t allow those details to overshadow the generous spirit of someone who truly believed in the power of the 12 steps and not facing one’s demons alone.
Even if it doesn’t provide the fullest picture of its subject, leaving viewers with those same sentiments makes Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot a laudable venture.