Rating: 2 stars
One of the first faces you see in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is that of Kim Gordon, who plays an upper-class matron sharing her story at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Most viewers will recognize Gordon, not as a character actress, but as the co-founder of Sonic Youth, whose presence in a film bestows almost instant hipster cred. In “Don’t Worry,” which chronicles the fall and rise of Portland cartoonist John Callahan, Gordon is joined by a cast of similar alt-chic archetypes, including Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein and the film’s own writer-director, Gus Van Sant. The entire enterprise has the feeling of a homemade valentine to a dear departed friend (Callahan died in 2010), a vibe that will be ingratiating or off-putting, depending on the filmgoer’s affection for the protagonist’s particular brand of mordant and tough but deceptively self-pitying humor. (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, virtually unrecognizable in a strawberry-blond shag and wire-rimmed aviator glasses, Callahan emerges as a nettlesome figure in “Don’t Worry,” a long-gestating adaptation of his own book. A desperately ill alcoholic who lost the use of his legs after a car he was riding in crashed into a light pole, Callahan began drawing cartoon panels as part of his rehab, eventually becoming a star in the comics world for his ruthlessly offensive jokes, often told at his own expense. (The title of the film comes from the caption accompanying an illustration of a posse on horseback gazing down on an empty wheelchair in the middle of a desert.)
Awkwardly structured as two parallel flashbacks — one from a lecture Callahan is delivering, one stemming from an impromptu encounter with a bunch of young skateboarders — “Don’t Worry” chronicles the depths of Callahan’s addiction, the circumstances of his accident (the driver of the car, who made it out without a scratch, is played by Jack Black) and his recovery in AA, especially in a group led by a beatific trust-fund kid named Donnie. Played by Jonah Hill in a gentle, tender-eyed performance, Donnie is given to gnomic pronouncements about doing the work and staying hydrated. That’s often too much to ask of Callahan, who is bent on self-destruction, whether by backsliding or driving his wheelchair at a perilously breakneck pace.
What he’s trying to outrun is his sense of abandonment: He was surrendered for adoption by his biological mother, a fact of his life that sends him into fits of hysterical woe-is-meism. There are early moments when “Don’t Worry” promises to be a bookend to Van Sant’s breakout 1989 film, “Drugstore Cowboy,” an edgy addiction drama.
But audiences should be reminded that the same director who gave us such unsparing narrative experiments as “Gerry” and “Elephant” is also the conventional sentimentalist of “Good Will Hunting” and the bathetically indulgent “Sea of Trees.” Uplift winds up getting the better of “Don’t Worry,” in which Phoenix delivers an impressively committed performance that nonetheless can’t overcome the movie’s worship of Callahan’s most immature, solipsistic and self-dramatizing foibles. A movie that’s supposed to inspire winds up being irritating instead.
R. At area theaters. Contains crude language throughout, sexual material, some nudity and alcohol abuse. 113 minutes.