Sundance 2018: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

“Twenty years ago,” begins Variety’s Peter Debruge, “Robin Williams approached director Gus Van Sant about developing irreverent Portland cartoonist John Callahan’s memoir, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, with the intention of playing its author—a quadriplegic skirt-chaser, wheelchair racer, born-again bastard, tactlessly un-P.C. disaster—in what sounds like it would have been a wild, Charlie Kaufman-esque pinwheel of a movie. Instead, we get super-chameleon Joaquin Phoenix in the role, and though the end result couldn’t be more different, it’s a keeper in any case.”

“A return for Gus Van Sant to the loose-limbed chronicles of outsider existences in Portland, Oregon that first put him on the map, like Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, this unwieldy but consistently enjoyable portrait of paraplegic local hero John Callahan is notable for its generosity of spirit and gentleness,” finds David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “For want of a better word, it's disarmingly chill.”

“There are plenty of great moments,” grants Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian, “but they jump out amid a jumble of strangely flat scenes. This doesn’t feel like the work of a great master; it’s a discordant brew that just doesn’t blend right. There’s some irony in this, considering that the story, based on cartoonist John Callahan’s autobiography, is largely about following the clearly demarcated twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sure, it’s a road that is frequently bumpy, but that shouldn’t allow for a film that is acerbic one moment and maudlin the next. Everyone in this extraordinary cast is doing something interesting, but the film just doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere.”

But for Screen’s Tim Grierson, “the movie radiates considerable compassion, sensitively addressing issues including addiction, recovery, and forgiveness. . . . Spanning more than a decade, and sometimes somersaulting around chronologically, the film fashions a mosaic-like portrait,” and “the cumulative effect has its own kind of sneaky power, presenting us with snapshots of a life rather than presumptuously assuming that a straightforward narrative arc would somehow be more illuminating.”

“Van Sant’s fragmentary approach reveals substantial investment in Callahan’s appeal, even as it has a distancing effect by establishing the outcome of his struggles while he’s in the midst of them,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “The movie falls short of deep insights, but its most prominent qualities—scrappy, ephemeral, a little bit lewd—mirror the chief attributes of Callahan’s endearing work.”

At the Playlist, Gregory Ellwood suggests that, since his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), Phoenix “has basically delivered one acting master class after another. And now he follows up his Cannes winning performance in You Were Never Really Here with a profoundly impressive turn . . . If only the rest of the film could completely live up to his performance.” Especially notable here are Ellwood’s ultra-succinct summations of the work from the other cast members, all slipped between parentheses: “Jack Black, fantastic”; “Jonah Hill, committed”; “Beth Ditto, more please”; “Mark Webber, barely there”; “Udo Kier, smart casting”; “Kim Gordon, works”; “Rooney Mara, charming”; “Tony Greenhand, not bad for a celebrity joint roller”; and “Carrie Brownstein, good.”

More on Don’t Worry from Steve Pond at TheWrap: “You can consider this a partial rebound from The Sea of Trees, while still wishing that [Van Sant] could have come back all the way.”

Don’t Worry is one of the films Nicolas Rapold and Eric Hynes discuss on today’s Film Comment Podcast (36’42”).

Update: “Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who brought an overwhelmingly distinct sense of place in the films of Kelly Reichardt, seems directionless here, relying on awkward zooms in a stale nod to the period they are capturing, and an overlit aesthetic that seems co-opted from an evangelical Hallmark movie,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “If Callahan’s cartoons had a certain attractive alternative edge, it’s a wonder why Gus Van Sant–whose cinematic experimentations are always curious–didn’t attempt to do the same with telling his story.”

Update, 1/21: “The uplifting nature of this true story naturally triggers Van Sant’s pesky sentimentality, with scenes that recall the hug-it-out, therapeutic catharsis of Good Will Hunting,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “But this is still the writer-director’s most formally interesting, emotionally involving movie in a decade, however little that may really be saying.”

Update, 1/22: “What makes Phoenix’s performance especially exciting is that you’re watching not just a character go from chaos to self-possession but an actor, too,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “A film like Don’t Worry can rise or fall on those AA group therapy sessions, and these are the best I’ve seen. . . . Van Sant maintains an improvisatory spirit, too. He has elicited a stupendous score from Danny Elfman that’s largely bebop but with alternately eerie and comforting orchestral noodling.”

Update, 1/23: “The secret weapon of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Callahan’s cartoons themselves,” finds Vince Mancini at Uproxx. “The title refers to the caption of one of them, a drawing of an Old West posse that’s come upon an abandoned wheelchair. Like a more sardonic Gary Larson drawn in a bug-eyed, Aardman Animation-esque style, Callahan’s cartoons got big laughs throughout the movie, whether depicting Klansmen relishing dryer-fresh sheets or visual puns on well-worn phrases.”

Update, 1/26: “In my view,” writes Miriam Bale for W., Phoenix is “the best living actor we have, incapable of giving a boring performance. The revelation of the film is Jonah Hill’s performance. As Callahan’s AA sponsor, his role is a little showier than Phoenix’s, but both actors temper the tragedy in their roles by playing with humor.”

Update, 1/27: Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey finds that “there’s some inventive crosscutting and structural play, and the form seems a good match with the subject . . . But Van Sant’s script keeps putting that stuff on pause so someone can do a maudlin, Oscar clip-ready, teary-eyed monologue.”

Update, 2/22: “None of it would land without Phoenix's phenomenally craggy performance, yet another one of his seamless embodiments of a man whose behavior reflexively defaults to low-key suicidal,” writes Steve Macfarlane for Slant. “The film is disarming for its sincerity, unalloyed in its positive thinking but unafraid of showing the gruesome details of alcoholism and denial to back up its bromides. While Callahan's turnaround from rock bottom indeed allows for conspicuous supporting turns from an ensemble of A-listers in period costume, Van Sant's decision to make the process a communal one isn't just a humanistic surprise—it's also admirably unsexy, and a testament to the comedic potential of going sober.”

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