Perhaps all too aware that the memoir of John Callahan plays very friendly to his brand of no-hopers-done-good cinema, director Gus Van Sant tackles this adaptation of the cartoonist’s biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot with a wilful, often alienating, idiosyncrasy. The film marks an admirable attempt to break Hollywood moulds and actually comes pretty close in the hands of its exceptional cast.
Though some will scoff at the casting of able bodied actor Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Callahan, a quadriplegic from the age of twenty-one, it’s worth remembering that the man himself wanted an A-lister to bring his story to the big screen. Besides, unlike David Gordon Green’s Stronger – to name one in a wide field – this is the story of a man overcoming the demons within his paralysed body, rather than the physical dimension alone. Callahan battled drink addiction through his life, with memoir and film alike structured around his journey through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Contrary to the logical pathway presented by a twelve-point-plot, the opening half of Don’t Worry – a title taken from one of Callahan’s wittiest, least politically correct comic sketches – is deeply fractured. Van Sant cuts with disorientating abandon across three epochs in Callahan’s story: before the accident, immediately in its wake and some time later. A certain degree of artistic licence is required here, with forty-three-year-old Phoenix a very unconvincing twenty-one.
Callahan’s injury comes when he meets fellow waster Dexter (Jack Black) and the pair go for an ill-fated, drunk drive; whilst the later comes away with scratches and is ‘very, very lucky’, the former is almost entirely broken. In remission, Callahan is seduced by dreamy Swedish physiotherapist Annu (Rooney Mara), who is surely a hallucination – her name shortens that of the Egyptian god of death, while she says at one point: ‘what if you were talking to the Devil John?’ – and is gifted an electric mobility scooter. The resultant scenes that see Phoenix glide, at glorious speed, through Portland are a poignant and entertaining highlight.
Alongside his galavants and discovery of newfound cartoonist wit, Callahan joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group and picks out hippy, homosexual life coach Donnie (Jonah Hill: ‘I refer to my higher power as Chucky when the word God doesn’t surfice’) as his sponsor. A more formula-typical second half sees Callahan achieve sobriety, and follow the twelve steps, after experiencing an epiphanic hallucination of his mother (Mireille Enos), who tells him to give up alcohol. Throughout, micro-skits fill gaps with animations of Callahan’s, frequently hilarious, cartoons.
Back in the nineties, it was Robin Williams – shortly after working with Van Sant of Good Will Hunting – who optioned Callahan’s book, with the intention to lead. Any sense of loss that we will never see Williams’ sharper but more saccharine Callahan, however, is negated quickly by an outstanding Phoenix. In part helped by Van Sant’s occasional recount to documentary-style shooting, it is impressive just how real the film and its performances feel. Black is given the chance to cover his full hyper-to-nuance range in a bookending part, while Hill is brilliant in yet another role demonstrating his versatility. Watch out too for cracking turns by Udo Kier and rock-stars Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto and Carrie Brownstein. Assembled by Kathy Driscoll and Francine Maisler, Don’t Worry is flawlessly cast.
Whereas Callahan’s sketches provoked controversy, Van Sant’s film is unlikely to motion any such stir. The scattershot, anecdotal opening will do little for general audiences, whilst the warming score from Danny Elfman and neat close are too cliché for arthouse attendees. That said, look no further for the creme of contemporary acting prowess.