Gus Van Sant should feel right at home telling the story of John Callahan, an eccentric quadriplegic cartoonist from Portland, Oregon, who’s led a long road to recovery from alcoholism. He should be another of the director’s rebel outsiders, as seen in My Own Private Idaho, Last Days and Milk. Sadly, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot does little justice to this rich and complex storytelling opportunity.
Joaquin Phoenix naturally shines as our weirdo hero, whose lows oscillate between screaming at his attendant for a bottle of booze and falling off his wheelchair in front of an audience of shocked teenagers and having his catheter come loose. This biopic can also come off as a little too precious at times, especially with the inserts of animated cartoons, as if they come to life on Callahan’s sketchpad. The timeline jumps between flashbacks and present day, both of which showcase some distractingly unsightly wigs on our leading man, make this film even more surreal -- but not in a good way.
If there’s one thing that Van Sant does very well here, it’s creating a humanizing anchor at the center of the story. Despite some distracting narrative choices and sketchy character development, the film does eventually find its footing. Ultimately Callahan -- lovingly, sometimes complexly portrayed as an antihero type with a problematic nature -- goes around visiting old friends, seeking closure from people he’s held grudges against for many years. Still, Don’t Worry often feels like the promising debut of an up-and-comer who got lucky with a big-name cast rather than a return-to-form film by someone as esteemed as Van Sant.