Van Sant’s New Film Considers the Healing Power of Art

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

The tagline of Gus Van Sant’s new film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot promises a film about “the healing power of art.” But rather than an exegesis on transformative creativity, Don’t Worry is a gooey, sentimental and highly conventional therapeutic road to wellness.

Based on the autobiography of countercultural Portland cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), Van Sant’s meandering bildungsroman of a film recounts how Callahan’s career and sense of self shockingly blossomed once he became a paraplegic and sobered up. Creativity doesn’t heal or even offer any special insight into Callahan’s existential circumstance, it just makes the road a little more jolly and colorful.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan presenting his taboo cartoons of physical disability.

A director of incongruous extremes, who can go from indie highs to mainstream lows, it’s never certain whether Van Sant will pull out his blanding wand or the alt pixie dust. In such projects as Elephant, My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant has delivered memorable visions of the counterculture and a distinctly off-kilter sensibility. But Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot fits squarely into Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting mode of mainstream feel good entertainments with a whiff of wackiness. It’s like rainbow jimmies sprinkled on white bread.

When the film opens, Callahan is a wastrel 21-year-old in cutoff shorts, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and a hangdog mop of hair. A ’70s SoCal party boy, Callahan needs a constant infusion of booze to cope with his lifelong cross to bear: abandonment as a child by his mother.  One night Callahan meets his personal Mephistopheles in an equally hard partying sybarite Dexter (Jack Black), who takes Callahan out on a one-night bender-to-end-all-benders that ends with Callahan waking up in a hospital bed paralyzed.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jack Black as his friend Dexter.

Thus begins the road to recovery helpmated by a beautiful Swedish angel Annu (Rooney Mara) who, like several women in the film, offers up her healing sexual energy like a groovy Florence Nightingale, the better to uplift the depressed and sexually frustrated paraplegic. For a gay man, Van Sant has a rather conventionalized view of normcore sexuality as the dispensing of sexual favors from beautiful women to help sad, damaged men.

Lapsing repeatedly back into alcoholism, Callahan along the way adopts cartooning as an exorcism, a viable career turn for a man whose primary mode of expression is all upper body—brain and hand. His politically incorrect klansmen, lesbians, disabled and other characters channel a countercultural ’70s vibe.

Van Sant scrolls through tragedy and outrage like a flip book, too anxious to skip to the next high or low to allow emotional impact to burrow in. In Van Sant’s hands, all the gonzo weirdness that characterized Callahan’s life is leeched out and transformed into sight gag. Barreling around Portland in an electric wheelchair he treats like an Alfa Romeo, Callahan wipes out in the road and is rescued by a surprisingly sweet group of teenage boys who recoil in disgust even as they replace his catheter bag, and pore over his drawings once they get him back in his chair.

Scene of teenage boys helping John Callahan after he falls out of his wheelchair.

We know from other films centered on cartoonists and their creative, escapist worlds, from Crumb to American Splendor to Ghost World, that this is a dismal but hilarious realm where cringy moments of shame and humiliation head butt searing truths about the drudgery and grind of life on earth. But Van Sant’s Callahan is more cuddles than counterculture: he’s a strange but oddly lovable pet.

For all the film’s flaws, Phoenix brings real heart and vulnerability to his role, a kind of broken kid in a broken man’s body. There are moments of sweetness in the whole endeavor, especially when Callahan’s AA healing process takes him on a forgiveness tour of Portland, asking his social worker, the man he stole a shirt from, and a former teacher, to forgive him for his past transgressions.

And there are some other inspired performances in Don’t Worry as well. Like the TV show “Portlandia,” Don’t Worry is larded with hipster cameos, including Sleater-Kinney musician Carrie Brownstein as a humorless social worker annoyed with Callahan’s constant irresponsibility.

John Callahan’s AA therapy group including a cast portrayed by Jonah Hill, Kim Gordon, and Udo Kier.

But mostly it is the members of Callahan’s AA therapy group who do the heavy oddball lifting. From cult art house icon Udo Kier in a toupée to Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon playing a not entirely believable posh housewife, Van Sant leans on this wackadoodle alternative family to tease out Callahan’s inner demons. Especially memorable is Jonah Hill camping it up as the AA encounter group ringleader Donnie, a disco-loving, short-short-wearing gay man who refers to their higher power as “Chucky” after the ’80s serial killer doll.

Exhibiting a false sense of its own naughtiness, even at its most outrageous, Don’t Worry is a bit of a snore. We’ve seen this all-American brand of up-by-the-bootstraps film before and not even a strong performance from Phoenix and a cast studded with more winking cameos than candied cherries in a fruit cake can gussy up its broken-down script.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens July 27 at Landmark Midtown Art, AMC Phipps Plaza, AMC Atlantic Station, Springs Cinema and Taphouse and AMC Parkway Pointe.

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