The profound mundanity of Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT.
Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT. /

Screenwriter/director Gus Van Sant delivers with his new biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.

When Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot begins, we see renowned cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) on stage, bathed in a spotlight, speaking to a large audience. At the same time, we see him speaking to a small group in what looks like a church basement. In both settings, years apart in his life, he tells the same story.

It’s not the only time this particular story will come up over the next two hours, either.

This fractured storytelling structure helps acclimate the viewer into getting a lot of backstory packaged into only a handful of overlapping scenes. We see John as he was at varying stages of his life, an alcoholic, a paraplegic, a cartoonist, and ultimately all three, while repeating the same stories along the way.

Based on Callahan’s own autobiography (he’s given a posthumous Story By credit), Van Sant is able to chronicle a rather a large portion of his life, subtly dropping hints about the specific period in time through character dialogue and evening news snippets.

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Much like Don’t Worry tells the story of John Callahan finding out who he really is, the movie takes its time to grow into its own narrative. Van Sant seems content to patiently let the story find itself, hovering behind like a parent following their child learning to ride a bike for the first time.

Of course, even the most watchful parents don’t always grab the seat in time, and there are some moments that the film seems just… off. Although it could be argued that this was Van Sant’s intent, given they often come at some of the most pivotal points in the story.

What makes these trope-ish moments stand out is that the rest of the movie is stacked with life-changing revelations that are presented with such underwhelming starkness they seem almost anti-cinematic.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
Jack Black as Dexter and Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan star in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT. /

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it echoes something that group leader Donnie (Jonah Hill) says about working through AA’s twelve steps, how there aren’t any lightning bolts that accompany one’s revelatory moments.

Speaking of, Hill’s performance as Donnie, a group leader and sobriety guru who’s alternatingly aggravating and awe-inspiring, is another reminder that he’s become one of the most surprisingly diverse performers working today. Clad in designer scarves and velvet tracksuits, Donnie comes across like a fading remnant of the opulent, disco-era New York lifestyle.

Hill’s work is equally matched by Phoenix’s, who brings the kind of restrained hesitance that’s shown to be his strong point as an actor. Here, he starts as a broken man whose life goes from bad to worse, while not only questioning the possibility of his own redemption but the very existence of it.

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The interplay between John and Donnie, particularly after their characters have earned a rapport with one another, is what Don’t Worry should be remembered for. A film that manages to give life’s tragedies, and the triumphs that can result, both mundane and profound at the same time.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot opens in theaters today.