The title of the wrenching addiction drama Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a mouthful, but it certainly does evoke the life of the sardonic cartoonist and quadriplegic John Callahan. It’s the caption of a panel, spoken by a cowboy leading a posse who comes upon an overturned wheelchair in the desert. I’ll let you visualize that for a beat. The image is both funny and grim. But Callahan’s wheelchair falls over lots of times in the film — he’s a hot dog tooling across busy intersections — and he somehow survives. Maybe he could even have out-crawled that posse.
The film is primarily a celebration of the 12 Steps, which all but guarantees a groan out of most non-AA people. That’s no knock on the steps or Alcoholics Anonymous, which has saved a lot of lives, but movies in which wayward addicts straighten out their lives (and souls, if you believe in such things) according to a set regimen are more alike than unalike. In this case, happily, the director and screenwriter is Gus Van Sant, who makes movies that conform to no recognizable templates, and Joaquin Phoenix (who plays Callahan) is one among the most thrillingly unpredictable film actors alive. Phoenix tends to get lost in his parts, which can lead him (along with his films) astray. But when his high-wire emotional arc suits the movie, there are few who can touch him.
Van Sant (who worked from Callahan’s memoir of the same title) cuts among several different timelines, which caused confusion for at least one viewer, but pays off when the timelines merge at the very end. Now, the orange-haired Callahan is sitting in his motorized wheelchair telling his story before a large, rapt audience in a Portland auditorium. Now, he’s telling a version of the same story in some kind of AA-related therapy group presided over by Jonah Hill looking like a fey Jesus. Now, there are flashbacks of his life at various junctures, including the last day he walked on two legs — which began while he was still drunk from the night before and ended in catastrophe.
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. He looks unhinged when, in his ambulatory scenes, he weaves around, accosting an attractive young woman on the beach in Southern California, squatting behind a car to finish off a bottle of tequila, and, of course, sliding behind the wheel. Phoenix lets Callahan’s inner compass point due south, toward the abyss.
Immediately post-catastrophe, Callahan is still an unruly presence, visibly chafing against the limitations of his body (he has full use of at least one arm) and finding creative ways to tip a bottle of vodka into his mouth. As Van Sant demonstrated in Drugstore Cowboy, getting clean requires not just self-denial but a reinvention (and, in the short term, a weakening) of one’s entire persona. So Phoenix’s Callahan first rails against his abandonment by his mother at birth (he blames his addiction on others), lashes out at fellow AA members, and then slowly begins to listen to voices other than his own. There’s an AA slogan that goes, “Don’t just sit there. Do nothing.” That’s what Phoenix shows Callahan doing and that’s what Phoenix does, too.
A film like Don’t Worry … can rise or fall on those AA group-therapy sessions, and these are the best I’ve seen. They’re actually not formal AA events, though: They take place in the well-appointed house of Jonah Hill’s Donnie and are only for Donnie’s sponsees — or “piglets,” as he refers to them. Unlike regular AA meetings, these have “cross-talk” — i.e., lots of interruptions and opportunities to vent, and Van Sant evidently encouraged a spontaneous flow. No less than Kim Gordon plays the ex-suburban housewife and Valium addict who tells a story about wandering her neighborhood buck naked. Udo Kier is doing … something from the planet of Udo Kier. A first-time actress, the 36-year-old musician Beth Ditto, all but takes over as the large and lovably extroverted member of the group.
Off to the side, drinking it all in, is Hill’s Donnie, and Hill gives quite a performance. Early on, he seems so intent on establishing his bona fides as a serious actor (a recurrent problem) that it’s hard to concentrate on his words. But gradually you can sense the intelligence that shaped his performance. Donnie is a rich boy, so entitlement would be second nature. It’s Donnie, not Hill, who’s striving to project beatitude (he’s fond of quoting Lao Tzu), and his limp wrists are not Hill’s way of signaling the character’s homosexuality but an emblem of relaxation and openness. Donnie spouts a fair number of familiar Taoist/AA tropes and Higher Power stuff that I can take or leave, but Hill makes you admire the guy’s spirit.
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. Maybe because the film is set in the ’70s and ’80s, Van Sant and his dynamic cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt use a period device — a zoom lens — to jump closer to Phoenix at moments of revelation. They zoom in on the cartoons that Callahan draws — with tenuous dexterity but remarkable concentration — when the recovered alcoholic finds his true calling. And sometimes Van Sant even animates those cartoons. (NB: Callahan had as many haters as admirers. In his work, he depicts feminists as overbearing and lesbians as terrifying. But he found his own nature terrifying, too. He was a bad boy to the end.)
I’m not sure what the hell Rooney Mara is doing as a glassy blonde Swedish physical therapist turned flight attendant — I hoped she’d turn out to be a figment of Callahan’s imagination (he has a few) but no such luck. Everyone else is wonderful, from the top of the cast list to the bottom. Jack Black is Dexter, the wild-man alcoholic who led Callahan off the precipice. He’s predictably Jack Black–ish (gonzo) in his first sequence. His second, years later, when Callahan tracks him down as part of the ninth step, is revelatory.
In a Q&A after the Sundance world premiere, Van Sant was modest and generous. Beth Ditto didn’t want to surrender the microphone: She thought maybe she’d never act in a movie again. (A number of audience members called out, “Yes! You will!”) Phoenix was a no-show, prompting Hill to text him from the stage. I kind of liked that he blew it off. I didn’t want my memory of his brilliance onscreen to be dimmed by his trademark coy monosyllables and exhibitionistic discomfort in the spotlight.