Twenty years ago, Robin Williams approached director Gus Van Sant about developing irreverent Portland cartoonist John Callahan’s memoir, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” with the intention of playing its author — a quadriplegic skirt-chaser, wheelchair racer, born-again bastard, tactlessly un-P.C. disaster — in what sounds like it would have been a wild, Charlie Kaufman-esque pinwheel of a movie. Instead, we get super-chameleon Joaquin Phoenix in the role, and though the end result couldn’t be more different, it’s a keeper in any case.
Coming off a run of some of the most disappointing films in his career (the absolute nadir being 2015’s treacly self-help lesson “The Sea of Trees”), Van Sant has rebounded with one of his best, a life-affirming sweet-and-sour concoction that recalls such crowd-pleasers as “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forrester,” and which will very likely launch Phoenix (back at work with his “To Die For” director) and co-star Jonah Hill (as audiences have never seen him before, playing the unlikeliest of life coaches) into the awards conversation.
Though movies like this are increasingly controversial to the disabled community, many of whom object to having able-bodied performers portray their experience on-screen, there’s a genuine value in seeing Callahan’s story (roughly a third of which takes place before his accident), and in representing quadriplegic characters on-screen. Whether they’ve been disabled since birth (à la “The Sessions”) or later in life (“The Sea Inside,” “The Theory of Everything”), their stories have a way of reminding able-bodied people what they take for granted, while serving to bridge the perception of difference and discomfort that no doubt contributes to an under-representation of handicapped characters in general. In Callahan’s case, his alcoholism indirectly caused his injury, and the circle of sincere human support that gathers around him — both for overcoming his addiction and adapting to his condition — is so beautiful as to justify the controversy of its casting.
Not that it has to be nearly so sentimental as depicted here, mind you. It’s the existential aspects of a story like this that impress the most, since Callahan’s injury forced him to reexamine virtually all of his priorities. He’d been a severe alcoholic from his early teens until age 21, when the accident that left him in traction ought to have come as a wake-up call. Instead, it took several more years and a profound spiritual encounter for him to admit he needed help, and eventually seek it out. “Don’t Worry” focuses primarily on this portion of Callahan’s story, as he combats his addiction and reorients his life with the help of his sponsor, Donny (Hill, virtually unrecognizable as an openly gay trust-fund kid who looks like Tom Petty, lives like Liberace, and tells it like it is).
Set in Van Sant’s native Portland, and zeroing in on a very narrow segment of Callahan’s book, the film once again finds avant-gardist Van Sant operating in ultra-conventional Lasse Hallström mode, spinning a handsome, honey-toned inspirational tale (bolstered by one of the warmest scores of Danny Elfman’s career), while relying on Callahan’s own single-panel cartoons to supply the teeth his feel-good script seems to lack. For whatever reason, Van Sant has latched on to the addiction-recovery segment of Callahan’s life story, loosely structuring the film around the 12-step program that steered him toward sobriety (with a subplot about wanting to meet the mother who gave him away for adoption through in for good measure).
Weirdly enough, the director’s upbeat strategy leaves “Don’t Worry” feeling practically evangelical, like some kind of exceptionally well-polished faith-based movie — though frequent talk of cunnilingus, a generally accepting attitude toward “queers,” and a couple of Callahan’s more blasphemous comics could alienate that audience. One can’t help but wonder whether the cartoonist would have recognized himself the way Phoenix plays him, since the actor hardly ever performs the kind of irreverence for which Callahan was celebrated. Apart from the detail of speeding his electric wheelchair everywhere he goes — across live railroad tracks, into oncoming car traffic, up makeshift skateboarding ramps — Callahan comes across fairly well behaved, whereas it would have been fun to see him portrayed as the troublemaker of his rehabilitation clinic, the way Jack Nicholson wrought red-blooded havoc in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Clearly, it would have been a different cocktail entirely had Williams gotten the movie made, though Van Sant compensates for Phoenix’s seriousness by casting comic actors Hill and Jack Black in key supporting roles. That way, while Phoenix does his intense, Method-actor thing, his co-stars keep the tone amusing via improvised conversations. Playing it straight, literally, the great German character actor Udo Kier earns a couple big laughs; ditto indie rocker Beth Ditto, who livens up their group-sharing sessions.
In a sense, without Williams’ involvement, Van Sant could no longer rely on a comedic genius to bring out the oddball personality of another, so he had no choice but to wrestle “Don’t Worry” into a more conventional shape. And yet, the movie remains wildly non-linear, mischievously skipping back and forth in time in a way that brings a measure of unpredictability to a process that — at least as far as his recovery is concerned — seems to be moving right on schedule. Casting Phoenix may be a polar-opposite solution, though the actor’s transformational abilities are staggering and the hair and makeup so good (not just his “electric orange” hair, but tangerine beard stubble to match), he turns someone who looked like something of a comic-strip character himself into a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human being.
If anyone seems out-of-this-world in this ensemble, it would be Rooney Mara as Annu, the heavily accented Swedish physical therapist who cares for him so well, Callahan eventually sets out to seduce her. Movies have a way of making such courtships seem like foregone conclusions, and yet, there’s a wonderfully grown-up quality to their initial flirtations (we sense that this is the first woman he has ever seen as more than an immediate conquest) that’s nicely offset by the gleefully immature way he whisks her about town astride his wheelchair.
Though everyone in Callahan’s orbit selflessly cares for him, Donny and Annu are the two who demonstrate that dynamic best, and his one-on-one scenes with each of them are not only touching, but laced with insights and aphorisms that audiences can take with them. Some will find it entirely too sentimental, others a tad repetitive (Callahan tends to repeat the same stories), but it’s hard to argue with a movie that celebrates the kind of recovery he went through. Callahan may never have regained the ability to walk, but he came to stand for something, and that’s just as good or better.