Gus van Sant has arguably made some great American films – Milk, Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho – some terrible American films – The Sea of Trees, Promised Land, Psycho (1998) – and some of the boldest cinematic experiments of his era – Gerry, Last Days, and Elephant. Milk and Good Will Hunting have been the most critically and commercially successful. It might be worth noting that both of those films were directed by van Sant but written by Dustin Lance Black and the team of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, all of whom took home Oscars for their excellent screenplays. My fellow movie loving friends and I occasionally argue that van Sant, a leading auteur in the New Queer Cinema movement, is at his very best when he is directing someone else’s work. I am in the camp that agrees with this point, but I will have to make a strong exception for Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
The always great Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, a real life newspaper cartoonist and recovering alcoholic who also happened to live most of his adult life as a wheelchair bound paraplegic before he died in 2010. Phoenix (in a role originally intended for the late Robin Williams) is an angry, opinionated asshole in a wheelchair who cheats the system that is set up to help him every chance he gets, annoying his frustrated case worker (Carrie Brownstein). In the early ‘70’s, Callahan got very drunk one night with his new friend, Dexter (Jack Black), the self-proclaimed “cunnilingus king of Orange County” and the two decided to go driving. You can see where this is going. Callahan’s life was tragically altered forever and Dexter walked away without a scratch.
Callahan finds healing and purpose in drawing crude, politically incorrect cartoons reminiscent of Gary Larson’s Far Side comic. While it may seem like this film should devote itself to Callahan’s discovery of his cartooning talent, instead, the narrative devotes itself to the hard and healing process of addiction recovery. There is nothing remarkable or fresh about the story, but, the characters that occupy Callahan’s world are truly engaging.
Don’t Worry is already receiving mixed reviews from critics. It is a piece written and directed by van Sant, so, I do not find it at all surprising that critics and audiences are not loving it. For example, the review from rogerebert.com by Susan Wloszczyna accuses Don’t Worry of “constantly chopping up narrative strands into bite-size chunks and later circling back to key incidents…It’s like having a waiter replace your plate of food with another one before you get to finish it and later brings the original plate back after it has gone cold.”
I disagree with Wloszczyna. I think the disjointed narrative structure of the film allows for refreshment in the midst of what would normally be another sappy linear drama about some alcoholic asshole who winds up ruining his life and then getting better. Trite. Tired. Boring. Postmodern movie audiences don’t appear to be here for that kind of movie any more. Van Sant takes the story of a person who overcomes the limitations of his addiction and disability, but does it in an imaginative and creative way. He breathes new life into tired tropes.
Van Sant, who has explored themes of addiction, recovery, and the tension between them in his earlier films, has made in Don’t Worry a very personal film. I see van Sant’s heart for his own queer community coming out especially when he makes thematic space for queer persons in his films. Good Will Hunting, for all of its value, doesn’t go the queer route and so, in that way, it doesn’t feel like a true van Sant film. In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, I see van Sant truly shining. Although not nearly the caliber of 2008’s Milk, truly his masterpiece, Don’t Worry introduces the perfect cast of marginalized freaks – queer folks, disabled folks, plus-size folks, persons of color, elders, forgotten housewives, and addicts – and makes them the hard-working, hard fighting healers and warriors of the damned difficult recovery process.
Phoenix is outstanding in the role of Callahan but he is far outshined by a slim Jonah Hill as Donnie Green, the out gay man who sponsors a whole host of recovering addicts who he calls his “piglets.” The piglets are a long-haired stoner (Tony Greenhand), a plus-sized redneck (musician Beth Ditto), a war vet with PTSD (Mark Webber), a disenchanted suburban housewife (Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth), a black gay street poet (Ronnie Adrian), and a wealthy elder eccentric (Udo Kier). Donnie is so full of grace and harsh truth bombs for Callahan and his addicts, I found myself fighting tears every time he spoke. Jonah Hill gives the performance of his career in this film and I want more of it. I think I may have found a new favorite movie hero in Hill’s Zen sponsor with the blonde Jesus hair and beard.
Here’s the thing: I’m a recovering addict and an addiction counselor myself. Many people I have consulted about Don’t Worry have expressed that it was a disappointment because they were expecting something more than a film about recovery. Well, I needed this film to be about recovery. When Hill as Donnie says things like, “Beat yourself with a feather, not a bat,” and “It’s hard teaching people faith,” I found myself biting the insides of my mouth so I wouldn’t sob next to the people sitting in my row. Donnie’s final moments with Callahan are the most moving scenes about the simultaneous horror and beauty of recovery I have ever seen in cinema. I smiled from ear to ear as tears liberally rolled down my cheeks and wet my t-shirt collar.
Look, addiction is evil and recovery is hard fucking work. People are dying. Callahan didn’t die from his addiction. Donnie and the darling piglets in the AA support group wouldn’t let him die. That is what recovery is all about and, say what you want about the film, Gus van Sant captured it perfectly.