But it doesn’t matter. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a turgid and plodding biopic that’s less interested in Callahan’s artistry and more in his recovery. The movie centers on a mildly charming performance from a mumbling Phoenix, but the story is aimlessly told, cutting back and forth between Callahan’s wayward youth and his later celebrity without any real purpose. At 113 minutes, Don’t Worry feels epically long for such an intimate tale of a man overcoming his personal demons. It’s hardly the worst movie of the year—Van Sant is too competent a filmmaker for that, even now—but it’s frustrating for how dashed-off every element seems.
Don’t Worry features multiple timelines that all overlap with each other. There’s Callahan as a hard-drinking young man, before the car accident he suffered as a 21-year-old that paralyzed his lower body. Then there’s Callahan in immediate recovery, where he’s aided by a winsome Swedish therapist in a Mia Farrow haircut called Annu (Mara), with whom he falls in love. Then there’s Callahan attending Alcoholics Anonymous, where he struggles through a program spearheaded by a guru-like sponsor named Donnie (Jonah Hill). Finally, there’s Callahan the cartoonist, exorcising his demons through darkly funny, sometimes gruesome doodles that earn him local fame (and occasional public scorn).
The thing that fascinated me the most about the movie was Callahan’s cartooning; Van Sant brings some of his most famous works to life with squiggly animation, loosely linking better-known gags to the real-world incidents that may have inspired them. Still, that’s just a tiny fragment of a film that spends more time on Callahan’s experiences in therapy, first for his physical recovery from the accident, and then with the group AA sessions led by Donnie. But Van Sant only paints a limited and derivate picture of those processes.
There’s some energy to the group-talk sessions, helped along by the spirited ensemble (including Beth Ditto as a hard-charging, self-identified redneck mom and the inimitable Udo Kier). Everything else is rather lifeless, with Hill playing Donnie as disaffected to a fault, dispensing proverbs and maxims (including Lao Tzu quotes and “drink water”) in a droning monotone. Phoenix is much more engaging as the older Callahan, but is less convincing when playing him as a younger man (Callahan was 21 when he was paralyzed, while Phoenix is 43 and looks like he’s already lived a long and hectic life).
Outside of the appreciably foul-mouthed Ditto, the film’s female characters are underserved, with Mara playing a person so one-dimensionally ethereal she often seems like a figment of Callahan’s imagination. Van Sant’s persistent impulse to cut ahead to Callahan’s older, more settled life (which the movie does frequently) makes little sense, given that whatever narrative the film has is powered by his journey through the 12-step program. This approach all but turns Callahan’s eventual triumph over his addiction into an expected footnote.