How is it I have never heard of cartoonist John Callahan? Thanks to director Gus Van Sant, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Callahan in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, I now must seek out his published works.
Incidentally, he was a wheelchair user. He was also a massive alcoholic. These two things are very related. Don't Worry is quasi-narrated by Callahan, as the editing shifts between him telling the story at both an AA group meeting and as a guest speaker in a lecture hall. Van Sant takes a bit of time with this, to build up to the accident, which itself is actually never seen onscreen. Instead, there's a fleeting glimpse of its aftermath at one point in the story; a brief description at another.
Both insanely drunk, Callahan and his friend Dexter (Jack Black, always underrated) ran their car into a light post at 90 mph. Dexter, who was driving, walked away with a few scratches. Callahan didn't walk away at all, but rather found himself to be quadriplegic. This happened to him at the age of 21, although Van Sant never makes much effort to make that clear. No one visibly ages in this movie, not that it matters so much.
There's a lot that sets Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot apart from other movies. We could start with the title itself. It's a little cumbersome. It's also the caption for one of his best known cartoons. It is thus also appropriate as the title to his story, with its irreverence toward his own disability. Callahan's work drew many complaints from newspaper readers, but many disabled people related to his contempt for being condescended to or pitied.
Much of the story takes place in the early eighties, and Gus Van Sant doesn't just give this film a look and feel appropriate to the era. He adds a tone for good measure, even filmmaking techniques, which make it feel like a movie that was actually made at the time. Don't Worry thus exists slightly outside of time, with a perfectly cast group of supporting actors who don't look like anything out of Hollywood at all, but like real, regular people, in a variety of sizes and colors, even sexualities. A gay black man in Callahan's AA group fancies himself an "American poet" and shares one of his many pieces appreciating the penis.
Jonah Hill plays Donnie, AA sponsor to Callahan as well as all the others in the aforementioned group -- he calls them his "piglets" -- and it might be Hill's most impressive performance I've ever seen. The character being a gay man with HIV is almost incidental. Hill has lost some weight, here sports a beard and long blond hair, and Donnie is about as laid back as they come -- in virtually every expect, the opposite of what you tend to expect from Jonah Hill. And yet it feels totally natural, and Hill disappears in the part.
Evidently a lot of people like working with Gus Van Sant, who also wrote this screenplay, based on Callahan's memoir of the same name. Rooney Mara plays Annu, the volunteer who helps Callahan with his rehabilitation and eventually has a relationship of sorts with him. Amongst the AA group we find both Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth and Udo Kier, who some might recognize as the wedding planner from Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein shows up as Callahan's contact with the company that provides him disability benefits.
Most of the story in Don't Worry is simply that of an alcoholic struggling and quite often failing to stay sober, going through the 12 steps in the process. This honestly gets a little heavy handed at times, and there was at least one moment where a character breaking down in tears, I thought, strained credibility. That's no reflection on the performances, however, which are excellent all around, but especially those of Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill.
This movie is most definitely a drama, not a comedy, but once Callahan starts getting interested in drawing cartoons, it provided a couple moments of big laughs. Gus Van Sant has an ability to create a tone that's difficult to pinpoint in some movies, and is comparatively straightforward in others. This movie falls into the former group, but on the whole, it works well.