Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill are so good in Don’t Worry their performances nearly swallow the movie. Based on the memoir of popular cartoonist John Callahan, this very loose adaptation, written and directed by Gus Van Sant, is steeped in the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, though some practices of the group portrayed here differ from those of AA.
As the lead sponsor/father figure of our group, Hill’s voice is delicate and authoritative, like the poetry of passive aggression. There’s a lot of talk about him being a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. I don’t like to encourage a competitive mindset in creative people, but another trophy on his mantle wouldn’t leave me obsessing over the purity of art.
Phoenix has the lead role, playing a charming cad – the sort a lot of us attempted to play in the ‘70s, where this story is set. When an accident during a typical night of drunken debauchery leaves him paralyzed from the neck down – save for his left arm and hand – he becomes even more tragically sexy. Incidentally, assorted medical issues recently left me mentally scrambled and reliant on assistive devices to walk, but oddly, unlike in the movies, my situation hasn’t gotten me laid . . . not even once.
Phoenix’ portrayal is as good as Hill’s, and the close relationship their real-life characters formed is at the core of Don’t Worry. Callahan built a huge cult following, while upsetting a lot of sensitive souls who found his willingness to make light of lesbians, the disabled and even a Messiah here or there, offensive.
At this point, it’s the norm for an essayist like me to either belittle the PC folks for being oversensitive, or the anti-PC gang for using the movement as an excuse to be dicks, and getting cheered for doing so. Are some of our PC brethren thin-skinned and prickly? Sure. Are many anti-PC zealots simply bigots trying to get a gold star? Yes and yes. So beware, I guess. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone getting upset over this movie, unless you’re just too sensitive for your own good.
Despite the fact that substance abuse and paraplegia are two main plot points, “charming” seems to be the vibe Van Sant is going for. Rooney Mara as Callahan’s lover is charming. The platonic relationship between Phoenix’ Callahan and Hill’s openly gay character is charming. Jack Black’s besotted failure (who could have been played by almost anyone) has a total disregard for everyone that dooms Callahan to life in a wheelchair. He has a charming side, nonetheless. Junkies in the encounter group are generally charming. And they tend to defer to the brassiest of the addicts, charmingly played by Beth Ditto. Even the seemingly threatening teenage skateboarders gathered around Callahan’s wheelchair turn out to be nice kids who wouldn’t dream of teasing a cripple. Charming.
Callahan coming to terms with his alcoholism and his severe disability consumes the bulk of the movie. As such, there are inspirational moments in Don’t Worry, and the film includes several touching and thoughtful scenes as well. Unfortunately, it also veers dangerously close to Hallmark Channel territory on occasion. I think a little more desperation on Callahan’s part, explosive rage in the other encounter group members, and a bit less ravishing beauty in his post-accident sexual partners was called for.
Many years ago, I briefly attended 12-step meetings for family and friends of alcoholics. I also attended CODA, a 12-step group for people who have trouble with codependent relationships. Please note that even in progressive, accepting 2018, I still specify which kind of groups I was in, so you won’t think I was a drunk. I also specify the short time I spent in group so you won’t think I was one of those people who need lots of ongoing support. No, I was just needy enough to be in a nearly trendy therapy, and not for very long either. “Hi, my name is Ed, and I’m an asshole.”
But I digress. Don’t Worry is Van Sant’s best film since Milk, which means Gus needs to work a little harder. I recommend it for the good parts, especially the acting, and despite the Hallmark schlock. Of course, you may love indie flicks with lots of cheese. If so, get ready for two hours in hog heaven!