Gus Van Sant has made an unfocused and forgettable drama about cartoonist John Callahan.
The first few shots of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot make it seem like a documentary. Or a drama filmed in documentary style. That’s fitting because the movie is as ineffective as most traditional biographical documentaries about a marginally famous artist. Don’t Worry even uses the common doc trope of occasionally animating the subject’s drawings, mostly when those works are reflective of his life or are well-known to his fans.
But this is not a documentary. Outside of those initial close-up shots of people, who turn out to be speaking in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Don’t Worry is never filmed like one. Scripted and directed by Gus Van Sant, the movie presents a narrative of the life of the late cartoonist John Callahan. Joaquin Phoenix, in his first role for the filmmaker since 1995’s To Die For, portrays the artist from aged 21 through his 30s in a nonlinear story of his struggles with alcohol and being a paraplegic, the latter the result of a drunk-driving accident in which he was a passenger.
Despite the jumbled structure, Don’t Worry fails to properly set up who Callahan was and why he should be the focus of a movie, a problem with many biographical docs, too. Are we shown the life of Callahan because he drew supposedly provocative cartoons for Portland’s alt-weekly paper? It can’t just be for that, especially since we don’t learn about his late-chosen profession until we’re well into the movie. It can’t just be because he was disabled. It can’t just be because he was an alcoholic. And it can’t even be because of those things added together.
Callahan was probably an interesting man. Don’t Worry never depicts him as one, unfortunately, and I struggled to understand why we were watching his life unfold, especially in such mixed-up fashion. The movie has received praise for not adhering to biopic cliches, but certain filmmaking conventions exist for a reason. Van Sant’s own Milk, about assassinated gay politician Harvey Milk, is a good example of a straightforward biopic made well enough to stand out, and not just because of the gripping yet graceful performance of its lead actor.
Phoenix is good in the role of Callahan, as expected, but he’s never compelling. And his sometimes gentle, sometimes peculiar portrayal seems inconsistent the way that it’s presented out of order. He probably is intended to come off as rather ordinary, though, hence his being just fine. Don’t Worry plays less like an exalting biopic in the manner of Milk and more like Van Sant’s barely veiled Kurt Cobain film Last Days, which depicts the humdrum end of the singer’s life. However, Don’t Worry is still concerned with offering some notable beats in Callahan’s story, such as the strange epiphany moment when he decided to quit drinking.
As a character study, the movie is too fragmented, even if that should be a reasonable choice. Callahan’s personality comes across as all over the place in a way that’s genuine, as anyone’s life presented as a series of scenes would contain an array of moods and behaviors. Parts of his life have little meaning or follow-through for a movie story, and that’s natural. Rooney Mara’s minor role as his Swedish girlfriend is inconsequential, yet it’s worth including her to show that the guy had romantic relationships. Her presence is as essential as would be an interview with the woman in a documentary about Callahan.
The most rewarding relationship in the movie, one that matters to whatever Don’t Worry is meant to be about, is between Callahan and his AA sponsor, Donnie, played by Jonah Hill. Even then, though, their dynamic is just dialogues, not dramatic movie moments. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Matt Damon and Robin Williams (who’d originally optioned Callahan’s book for Van Sant to adapt) in Good Will Hunting. There’s a scene where Donnie explains the ninth step in AA’s program, driving the points about forgiving others and taking personal responsibility for his condition and his problems, and it conversely parallels the part in Good Will Hunting where Williams keeps telling Damon that it’s not his fault. If only there was more to the scene in Don’t Worry besides talking heads — just because Callahan is paralyzed doesn’t mean the action of the film has to be — it could have similarly been a powerful and memorable moment if there was anything cinematic to it.
If Van Sant wanted to avoid making a cliche biopic, he ought to have still gone for something bold. Not every unconventional film about a cantankerous cartoonist has to be as clever as American Splendor, but it shouldn’t be as flat as Don’t Worry is. Never mind whether Callahan’s story should be represented as indistinct to show that in spite of his noteworthy labels and physical situation he was just a regular guy. Not much happens in Last Days as far as plot, but every scene, even one of pseudo-Cobain making macaroni and cheese, then becomes unforgettable.
Don’t Worry isn’t a significant movie about the struggles of being in a wheelchair. Even a urine leak is dealt with as nothing. It’s also not a significant movie about addiction, which Van Sant has given us in the past (see Drugstore Cowboy). Nor is it a significant movie about being an artist, as that’s hardly explored. Members of AA will probably appreciate its portrayal of their organization and its 12-step program, though. Also, people who are already familiar with and fans of Callahan could be satisfied. Just as they might be with a mediocre documentary on his life.