[This is a repost of my review from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens today in limited release.]
Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot feels like a mish-mash of other stories about the triumph of the human spirit, and the writer-director seems well aware of it despite working from the true story of cartoonist John Callahan. When the director seems largely at a loss for what makes his protagonist unique, your film is in trouble, and despite excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill, Don’t Worry is a movie that’s constantly lapsing into clichés and hoping that because Callahan had triple the struggles—he was an alcoholic and a paraplegic and an orphan—the film will be three times as compelling. It’s not.
Don’t Worry goes for a jumbled narrative, scrambling up the chronology of Callahan’s (Phoenix) life as we see him go from an alcoholic, to an alcoholic in a wheelchair following a car accident, to going to Alcoholic Anonymous and forming a friendship with his sponsor Donnie (Hill), and eventually finding his calling as a cartoonist. Although the movie lacks much of a structure, jumping around between Callahan’s addiction and sobriety, we eventually see how he’s able to find a way forward thanks to AA and the twelve steps like surrendering to a higher power and asking forgiveness from those he has wronged.
The jumbled chronology makes sense in that it helps blur the line between Callahan’s sobriety and addiction, pointing out that there’s no real “cure” for alcoholism and that everything—his highs and lows—are part of the same person. Unfortunately, this leaves Don’t Worry as a largely shapeless, meandering mess that could seemingly go on forever as we randomly move between scenes with some sense of forward movement but never enough that there’s any momentum. The result is just a collection of scenes where Phoenix and Hill get to shine as actors, but there’s not much connective tissue to track their growth.
And the only character who even feels like a real person is Callahan. Everyone else seems to serve his epiphanies and catharses. Rooney Mara is absolutely wasted as a Annu, a case worker who is so ill-defined, randomly inserted, and one-dimensional that I initially wondered if was just a figure Callahan had imagined out of loneliness and despair. Even Donnie on paper is just the sassy, wise gay friend trope, and it’s a credit to Hill that he’s able to make the character feel remotely real even though he, like everyone else in the film, apparently has no inner life beyond the wisdom they can impart to Callahan.
For all the wisdom Callahan receives, he still remains remarkably ill-defined. The story leans heavily on his three most obvious attributes—his alcoholism, his disability, and his adoption—and yet these attributes feel shallow, as if they were plucked from better movies about a protagonist overcoming adversity and then smashed together because that was Callahan’s life, but in Don’t Worry he comes off as less than the sum of his parts. The only time where it feels like he’s an individual is when we see him become a cartoonist, and his work feels like an expression where I finally got to know Callahan as more than what was obvious. Watching Callahan at work on his comics he finally feels like a person rather than a triumph-delivery vehicle.
Sadly, these moments are few and far between as Van Sant jumps around Callahan’s story, desperate to find meaning or pathos without doing the hard work of creating well-defined characters. I have no doubt the real John Callahan struggled mightily in life and his accomplishments are remarkable. But through the lens of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, his life is as mundane as following well-worn steps.