The life of cartoonist John Callahan seems tailor-made for an awards-friendly biopic: Paralyzed in a car accident at age 21, Callahan triumphed over adversity on multiple fronts, as a quadriplegic and an alcoholic, and created work that was provocative and often controversial. Writer-director Gus Van Sant delivers a disjointed portrait of Callahan’s life in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (based on Callahan’s own memoir), but his fractured approach doesn’t mitigate the cheesiness of the story. Instead of a straightforward narrative, the movie plays like a series of disconnected Oscar clips.
A lot of those clips involve John (Joaquin Phoenix) speaking to fellow addicts at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which provide convenient contexts for dramatic revelations and emotional outpourings. It’s clear that John’s drinking is responsible for his accident (he’s completely wasted when he gets in the car driven by his equally intoxicated friend), but part of the movie’s problem is that its nonlinear structure obscures the timeline of John’s life, making it tough to tell how long John kept drinking after sustaining his injuries, when he decided to get help, and whether his drinking continued once he started going to meetings.
Since John’s sobriety is the movie’s primary focus, that lack of clarity proves increasingly frustrating, and it extends to other aspects of the story as well (even basic info like John’s age). Tracking John’s cartooning career (which he launches seemingly without any anticipation around the middle of the movie) is far too difficult, and Van Sant doesn’t spend much time depicting John’s rise to success or the response to his often deliberately offensive cartoons.
For a movie about an artist, Don’t Worry has very little interest in John’s art. The occasional animated interludes based on his cartoons point to a looser, more creative movie than this often stodgy production, but they’re too insubstantial and infrequent to make a lasting impact.
Instead, Van Sant digs into John’s relationship with his AA sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), a rich dandy who offers heartfelt platitudes about recovery and eventually dies soulfully offscreen to provide John with an opportunity for personal growth. At least Hill fully commits to his performance (including one extremely abrupt scene of emotional vulnerability), even though Donnie is more of a plot device than a character. That’s more than can be said for Rooney Mara, who sort of floats in and out of the movie as Annu, a Swedish flight attendant and good Samaritan of some kind who first visits John in the hospital and then becomes his girlfriend (although the exact nature of their relationship is kept vague).
Van Sant often elides the passage of time with montages that look like he’s swiping through video clips on a smart phone, and the entire movie leaves the impression of glossing over the everyday moments that tie someone’s life together. Phoenix gives a more contained performance than he’s typically known for, but he still captures the rage and resentment that John keeps trapped inside following his accident. Van Sant traces almost all of that negativity to John’s feelings of abandonment over being given up for adoption, but John’s quest to find his birth mother culminates in the movie’s most shamelessly sentimental moment, with a vision of John’s mother’s ghost accepting his forgiveness.
As a director, Van Sant has shown equal interest in experimental art films and manipulative crowd-pleasers, but in Don’t Worry, both of those instincts fail him. The movie is too scattered to be an effective tearjerker, but not radical enough to leave those conventional elements behind. It never gets itself out of the awkward middle ground.