John Callahan was paralyzed in a car accident when he was twenty-one years old. He was drunk at the time of the accident, and continued drinking in the following years until he got sober at age twenty-seven. After that, he became a successful newspaper cartoonist and a minor celebrity in Portland, Oregon. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a biopic about Callahan that was written and directed by Gus Van Sant.
These biographical details are worth mentioning because Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Callahan, is in his mid-forties. Such an age gap creates a storytelling challenge, so Van Sant tries to overcome it with a disjointed narrative that is absent any concrete sense of time. This creates an aimless sense of the addiction/recovery cycle, so few scenes have any sense of drama or emotion to them.
This is Van Sant’s first biopic since Milk, arguably his greatest commercial success, and a film that gave Sean Penn a Best Actor Oscar. Milk and Don’t Worry have a similar framing device, but instead of Harvey Milk speaking into a tape recorder, we have John Callahan giving his life story in a lecture. We never see the fateful accident, only the events immediately before and afterward. Callahan gets loaded with Dexter (Jack Black), a fellow party animal, except Dexter emerges from the wreck with barely a scratch on him. The more pivotal figure in John’s life is Donnie (Jonah Hill), a wealthy gay man who becomes his AA sponsor.
Don’t Worry cycles between AA meetings, the indignities of John’s everyday life, and his growth as an artist. Somehow Van Sant is incurious about all these scenes, keeping the material at arm’s length from the audience, so any frustration we might feel devolves to resignation. There have been many films about brilliant alcoholics, and the best ones use subjective POV storytelling to put us into the mind of the drinker. We feel the woozy highs of being tipsy, the crashing lows of hangovers, and the desperation over finding the next bottle. This film eschews that subjectivity, so we never worry about John or celebrate his triumphs.
The pacing and narrative incoherence are what make this film so inert. Flashback and flash-forward for useful storytelling tools, and yet the thrust of most any narrative – particularly for a story like this – should only go in one direction. Instead, most of the scenes lack any context (there are no titlecards indicating the year any scene takes place), so the only drama can occur within the confines of one moment. The AA meetings are admittedly well-written and acted, with cameos from Kim Gordon and Udo Kier.
The casting of Phoenix only exacerbates this problem. He is not convincing as a young man, or someone disabled. Unlike You Were Never Really Here, which features a terrific physical performance, Phoenix goes through the motions of playing John. There is some sub-textual resonance since Van Sant made his career with My Own Private Idaho, starring Joaquin’s brother River, who would eventually succumb to his battles with addiction. His freewheeling sense of experimentation is absent here, and so is the formal daring. The photography of Don’t Worry is flat and haphazardly framed, with a wan yellow color that hardly resembles the lush greens of Portland.
The best scene in this film – that one that wholly articulates the themes of recovery and redemption – happens toward at the end. It is when John, bound to his wheelchair and on the “forgiveness” part of the twelve steps, confronts Dexter. It is a short scene, yet Jack Black uses his gifts as a physical comedian to suggest the full weight of Dexter’s guilt. Black is so effective because we have not seen Dexter since the night of the accident, and the two moments create a narrative arc. Nowhere else in the film is there such a simple, albeit effective set-up/payoff structure.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a rebuke of the traditional addiction story. But the story of addiction is a human story first, full of flaws and triumphs, and does not need a jumbled structure in order to feel fresh. A normal emotional response – one that is effectively filmed and acted – should be enough.