If there’s anything harder than making a good film about addiction, it’s making one that isn’t predictably saccharine or punishingly grim. In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Gus Van Sant pulls it off by zig-zagging all over that spectrum, recklessly but perhaps with a deeper sense of orientation – much like Joaquin Phoenix does on John Callahan’s motorized wheelchair throughout the film. Patchy by design, quirky but ready to drop any pretense at a moment’s notice, and capable of taking it all in its stride with impressive resilience, this is a rich, affecting return to form for the veteran director.
There’s a lot going on in what is certainly Van Sant’s best film in at least 10 years. It starts with a typical meaty performance from Phoenix, who embodies the real-life Portland cartoonist before and after the car accident that left him paralyzed, and throughout a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and with his own creativity. It is a remarkable achievement but – let it be said with the maximum respect for his craft – you sort of know already how great Phoenix is going to be; as such, it’s not the most interesting thing about the film, which in many ways exists on a different tonal register compared to its leading man.
Part of it can be traced back to the genesis of the project, which was supposed to have Robin Williams in the Callahan role, before the passing of both Williams and Callahan himself forced Van Sant to take a break and reshape the whole thing. Another reason may be that in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, everything and everyone is coming in with their own tonal register. This results in a strange but pleasant off-kilter vibe, like constantly opening your eyes in a game of Statues and finding that everybody is not where you thought they were. Yet we see the other actors benefiting from Phoenix’s umbrella performance. Jonah Hill (acting with his guard down for the first time that I can remember) and Jack Black are both excellent, the former slowly growing on you with earnest mellowness, the latter making the most of only two brief appearances and leveraging the absence in between to devastating effect. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara’s Annu literally drops by from another world, appearing at the lowest point of Callahan’s life as an idealized beacon of hope and beauty that can’t possibly be real, and yet it is.
The structure also contributes to this, eschewing a conventional arc in favor of a compelling, if disorganized, plurality of dramatic references. There’s a framing device in which Callahan recounts his story to a group of kids he meets on the street (come to think of it, Callahan’s casual interactions on Portland’s sidewalks are a delightful and quintessentially Van Sant recurring beat), and another one contrasting two instances of him speaking in public. There are animated cartoons serving as episode intros and Jack Black’s two-pronged grip on the story. Plus, before you realize it, Van Sant is discreetly dialing up the emotions by nudging John towards the completion of his 12 steps, a resolution prompted by ‘something really profound’ that he’s finally able to put into focus about his mother.
Still, the acentric nature of the storytelling, the ‘just-roll-with-it’ weirdness of the performances, and above all the tender humanist touch of an expert director, ensure that even without a traditional moment of catharsis (or because of it), the story lands exactly where it needs to, as gracefully as possible, and against the odds. It’s very much a matter of ‘beating yourself with a feather, not with a bat’, as Jonah Hill’s expectation-defying guru/sponsor character suggests to the group of people in his care. And Van Sant delivers that beating in the softest, most honest fashion.