Gus Van Sant returns to the Berlinale with his best film this decade, an open-hearted exploration of recovery that features a great central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. A biopic detailing the cartoonist John Callahan’s recovery from alcoholism and an accident that leads him completely paralysed below the legs, this is Phoenix’s attempt at a My Left Foot-style awards run. While nowhere near as remarkable as that Daniel Day-Lewis film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a fine crowd-pleaser that should do rather well once it is released domestically.
Don’t Worry is based on the memoir of the same name by the cartoonist, whose works eventually featured in the Portland newspaper Willamette Week for twenty-seven years. Callahan is a man burdened by anxiety and fear, who uses alcohol to mask his inability to process his emotions. One day he goes to a party, where he runs into Dexter (Jack Black) and together they carouse around town. When Dexter falls asleep at the wheel, drunkenly driving to the next party, the car crashes and Callahan is instantly paralysed. At first finding it extremely hard to move on with his life — having never envisioned himself as a paraplegic — his journey sees him trying to find some kind of inner peace.
This story is not told in a straightforward way, Van Sant deploying a nonlinear structure that moves between different times in Callahan’s life. Initially feeling rather disconnected, the purpose of such an approach reveals itself around two-thirds through. As such a broad movie, it might get too tiresome simply waiting for the usual tropes to occur. The accident, the “my names x and I’m an alcoholic” moment, the epiphany, the amazing girl, the relapse and so on — these clichés have been done to death. By cutting to the quick with this innovative structure, and focusing on the complexity of the character, the drama feels fresher than perhaps it should. Even the clichés of the AA program — which everyone can recite by now — feel real again by virtue of their relation to Callahan’s progression. His story is an inspiration, but through its humour never feels too didactic.
At its heart Don’t Worry is a feel good movie, designed to pull on the heartstrings and show people that even when things are at their lowest ebb, they can get better. Its sentimental nature is common from Gus Van Sant, who is unafraid to open his character’s hearts to the audience. The miracle is that it doesn’t become too soppy, largely thanks to the acting chops of the cast. Callahan’s journey is also Phoenix’s journey, the brilliant actor submerging himself into the role. Simply one of the best actors working today, he never short-changes a role, meaning that even when the film isn’t that great, he still performs exceedingly well. His embodiment of Callahan feels like the perfect corollary to his drawings — which in their gentle, sometimes un-PC observation of human nature — are extremely funny and give the film its unique personality. In addition, the context of the alcoholic recovery means that the movie is not afraid to discuss questions of faith and believing in a higher power — adding a strong spiritual layer to proceedings.
Van Sant casts repeatedly against type here; Rooney Mara as a kind Swedish helper, Jonah Hill as Callahan’s wise and helpful AA mentor, and Jack Black giving one of the best scenes of his career once we revisit his character a second time. Seeing comic actors such as Hill and Black play for drama works very well, because their body language and delivery is completely on point, helping to undercut the seriousness of the movie and give it that perfect sweet-spot between comedy and sincerity.
It is far from perfect, at times losing the thread of the narrative through its impressionist presentation, and repeating too many conversations when the point has already been made. Gus Van Sant experiments constantly here, sometimes employing unnecessary stylistic devices that don’t add anything to the movie’s themes. These things prevent the film from being a masterpiece in the general sense, yet as a crowd-pleaser, this story really knocks it out of the park. For any artist who thinks they are having a hard life, the story of John Callahan should give them both perspective and inspiration.
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.