Sonntag, 19. August 2018

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

In keeping with Danny Elfman's jazzy score, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is a freewheeling and messy affair full of competent filmmaking, brilliant moments, and questionable ideas. In short, it's a Gus Van Sant movie.

Given the maverick director's recent track record, that needn't be a good sign. He made his last good film in 2011 – the critically panned teen romance Restless – which was followed by Promised Land (2012), generally thought to be perfectly mediocre, and The Sea of Trees (2015) – an elaborately produced mystery drama set, in a move widely condemned as thoughtless and offensive, in Japan's Aokigahara forest, an internationally notorious suicide spot. At the box office, all three of these 2010s offerings tanked in quite spectacular fashion.

Enter Don't Worry, which, in terms of topic, harks back to 2008's Milk, Van Sant's last unequivocal critical and commercial success. Like the Academy Award-winning portrait of San Francisco mayor and LGBTQ+ icon Harvey Milk, Don't Worry is about a countercultural local hero, recounting the life of Portland-based quadriplegic artist John Callahan (played by Joaquin Phoenix), whose macabre newspaper cartoons have drawn comparisons to the work of Charles Addams and Gary Larson.

It's a life ripe for adaptation all right: put up for adoption as a baby, Callahan grew up in a family he resented, which contributed to him turning to alcoholism as a pre-teen. At the age of 21, after a day of hard drinking, he goes bar-hopping with another man (played here by an excellent Jack Black), who ends up crashing their shared car – leaving Callahan paralysed from the shoulders down. Six years later, he starts to overcome his addiction with the help of his AA mentor, Donnie (a scene-stealing Jonah Hill).

In accordance with Callahan's sardonic view on life, Van Sant decides to play this as a highly entertaining comedy-drama that puts more stock in the interplay between characters than the larger narrative. Due to its jumbled, non-chronological, nesting-doll-like dramaturgy – and the fact that, at 43, the otherwise impeccable Joaquin Phoenix is arguably too old to play a character who mainly appears in his 20s and 30s – Don't Worry lacks a clear sense of time. It is often hard to tell how far along in Callahan's character development we are supposed to be.

Quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) befriends his AA mentor Donnie (Jonah Hill).
© Filmcoopi
The advantage of this structure, however, is that it enables Van Sant to evade the biopic genre's tendency towards teleological oversimplification. Take Callahan's cartoons, for example: even though they feature fairly prominently in the film, they are not portrayed as the miracle cure to the protagonist's psychological struggle. His art is not the goal his life is heading towards. This stands in stark contrast to more linear genre entries like Ray (2004) or Walk the Line (2005), where redemption comes through art (and love) alone. In that sense, Don't Worry smartly complicates the cinematic canon of artists' biographies.

Moreover, what Van Sant achieves on a character level here is as engaging and moving as anything in Milk. There may be the odd hiccup – such as Callahan's underwritten love interest Annu (Rooney Mara) or his vision of his unknown mother – and there is a lingering feeling of unfulfilled potential, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. Thanks to stellar acting from both men involved, Callahan's meeting with the man who caused his disability, years after the incident, is a standout scene not just of the film but of the year; and his tender relationship with Donnie, a gay man living through the AIDS crisis, is another beautiful reminder that Van Sant, if nothing else, is a master at depicting male friendship.

★★★★

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