Review: Joaquin Phoenix Treks the Long Road to Sobriety in ‘Don’t Worry’

If you’ve ever hung out with an incorrigible drunk, then you’ll immediately appreciate the dramatic beats of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s cleverly volatile, infuriatingly random take on the disabled alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan. Self-pitying or smug, jaunty or crestfallen, callous or contrite, the movie’s fitful tone will be fully yoked to Joaquin Phoenix’s sodden-to-sober lead performance.

Maybe in which’s why the camera works so hard to maintain an even keel. We meet Callahan (who died in 2010) after a bender, racing to the store to refill before the D.T.s set in. He will remain precariously pickled even after a fateful night of partying in 1972 with an equally soused pal (Jack Black) leaves him quadriplegic along with entirely dependent on his lackadaisical caregiver. Only when hoisting bottle to mouth becomes impossible without help does he decide in which’s time to drag his sorry self up the 12 steps.

Neither embracing nor completely skirting the sinkholes of the recovery narrative — among them sanctimony, sentiment along with backslapping triumphalism — Mr. Van Sant (adapting Callahan’s 1990 memoir of the same name) marshals numerous countervailing strategies. Adopting an erratic, flashback-fortified style, he disrupts the typical plod to sobriety. Offbeat casting decisions enliven Callahan’s otherwise repetitive A.A. meetings, including the reliably odd Udo Kier along with marvelous turns through the musicians Beth Ditto of Gossip along with Kim Gordon (formerly of Sonic Youth).

Which will be too bad, because in which surrenders a large chunk of screen time to the trudge of recovery along with Callahan’s maudlin callbacks to the mother who abandoned him along with whom he blames for his addiction. This kind of wallowing can become claustrophobic; so in which’s a relief to accompany Callahan as he barrels around his native Portland, Ore., in his motorized wheelchair, wiping out on street corners along with goofing using a group of young skateboarders. These excursions, captured with reckless fluidity by the cinematographer Christian Blauvelt, aerate the movie along with temporarily dispel the dust of Higher Power earnestness.

Nothing, however, can excuse the movie’s preposterous depiction of Annu (a purely decorative Rooney Mara). A stunner in a sundress (along using a composite of several women in Callahan’s life), she appears before the hospitalized Callahan so drenched in angel dust she could be an illusion. The whole episode will be classic inspirational mush; even later, when she transforms into a sunny flight attendant along with Callahan’s layover lover, she still seems as incorporeal as his vision of his absent mother.

Staggering between corny conventionality along with zesty, upbeat weirdness, “Don’t Worry” never fully acknowledges the cruelty along with selfishness required to sustain a longtime habit. Callahan’s Step 9 trek to make amends will be accomplished with remarkable ease, along with his support group will be a haven of simpatico sufferers.

None more so than its leader, Donnie (a revelatory Jonah Hill). A trust-fund Christian in flowing scarves along with suede jackets, Donnie moves in a haze of Lao Tzu quotations along with enigmatic recovery-speak, punctuated by the delicate arcs of his cigarette holder. The benevolent tugs between his chill philosophizing along with Callahan’s indulgent egotism have a relaxed, buddy-movie appeal; he’s the tonic in Callahan’s gin.

“Maybe life’s not supposed to be as meaningful as we think in which will be,” a fellow addict says during group, perhaps realizing in which self-absorption can be an even tougher habit to kick than booze. Like most of us, Callahan, by movie’s end, will be not quite there yet.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Rated R for exuberant cunnilingus along with indelicate cartoons. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.