Gus Van Sant is a warmly holistic filmmaker, typically taking affectionate approaches to outsiders or internalized characters in fictional and true stories alike. His latest film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot looks compassionately at cartoonist John Callahan as he copes with alcoholism and the paralysis that resulted from a booze-induced accident. But unlikely Van Sant’s more complete visions, this film is defined almost exclusively by those cozy feelings to dull effect.
Callahan’s life as the film shows it begins with constant heavy drinking and carelessness. After his accident, he is introduced to some of the significant characters in his life: a Scandinavian flight attendant Annu (Rooney Mara, rehashing her Lisbeth Salander dialect) and his fellow group therapy members, led by the eventually AIDS-stricken Donnie (a moving Jonah Hill). On the road to healing for Callahan, he discovers purpose in his caustic rudimentary drawings on the local collegiate set. That kind of simplistic biopic with all the obvious observations you expect, the film never feels all that personal or insightful on Callahan’s psyche beyond the basic talking points.
As Callahan, Joaquin Pheonix is sensitively attuned to the man’s simmering sadness and resentment. Similar to his more understated performances in the likes of Her, the actor brings a light touch to emotional bruises, always compelling to watch even if the film undersells him. Though Don’t Worry is displaced in time across several decades of Callahan’s life, Phoenix’s work cohesively threads the unpredictable ebbs and flows of recovery.
To limping effect, the film is more concerned with painting its protagonist in the tragically heroic light of survival in the face of his disability than examining the layers and struggle of his alcoholism. The unfortunate result is a film that falls on the side of offensive ableism rather than the loving portraiture of its intentions. Its pathos can’t get past fetishizing the mechanics of John’s paralysis, leaving us to wonder if the film has any interest deeper than the saccharine or comforting.
Similarly the film’s eye on addiction is evasively surface-focused, reducing John’s inner turmoil down to a few repeated sound bites of Psychology 101. You can see this approach applied to other characters as well, particularly the way it define Donnie almost exclusively in victim saint terms without any insight beyond his trauma. While the performances all around (especially a delightfully plainspoken Beth Ditto), generate some emotional impact, the film demands little of them with its uncomplex renderings.
The film finds its characters to only be the sum of their tragedies rather than human beings. That’s the difficult thing about humanism on film that Van Sant underestimates here: it’s not enough to simply assuage and coax the people in the story being told, one must also investigate them with curiosity beyond the narrative benchmarks.