I’ve never understood the dubious cult of Gus Van Sant. Sure, I can acknowledge that early films like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho were offbeat enough to warrant further interest. It’s hard to deny the mass-market appeal of Good Will Hunting, even if it didn’t resonate with me the way it apparently did for many others. Milk was good, I guess, but I can’t think of anything else he’s directed in the last 20 years that I would even call acceptable — though his latest, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot comes as close as anything. In many ways, Van Sant seems like a vestigial holdover from a bygone era of indie darlings, a relic from the pre-streaming days of midbudget filmmakers that never adapted to the demands of 21st-century cinema. It’s probably worth noting that Good Will Hunting is the only screening I’ve ever walked out on.
Personal tastes and biases not withstanding, Don’t Worry finds the writer director firmly in crowd-pleasing mode — or at least that seems to be his intent. And for what it’s worth, Van Sant does come pretty close to middle-of-the-road marginalia with this biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic who found his calling after being paralyzed from the waist down in a drunken-driving accident. Van Sant, working from Callahan’s memoir of the same title (itself taken from one of Callahan’s cartoons) details the artist’s recovery and rise to prominence as an illustrator, but the director paints his subject’s struggles with a saccharine sentimentality ill-befitting a story this compelling.
Often glossing over the uglier details of Callahan’s addiction and depression in favor of forced feel-good moments and a turgid sense of humor that seems awkwardly juxtaposed with the cartoonist’s incisive wit, Van Sant softens edges in places where he should be going for the jugular. His cast is uniformly strong, with bit parts for Udo Kier, Carrie Brownstein, Jack Black and Kim Gordon (yes, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) contributing moments of interest where Van Sant’s direction and story structure fall flat. Even Jonah Hill is uncharacteristically good as Callahan’s AA sponsor, but Van Sant’s obtrusive style and misguided narrative architecture undermine the best efforts of his performers, Phoenix included.
I’ve always considered Van Sant to be something of a lazy stylist, unrefined in his visual choices. Don’t Worry has done nothing to disabuse me of such notions. The director employs his hallmark tendency toward unnecessary and distracting hand-held zooms, but now he’s exacerbated those deficiencies by adding a strange sort of crawling wipe montage, with frames literally trailing off the edge of the screen to make room for another half-baked setup. It’s actually a good metaphor for Van Sant’s screenplay, which haphazardly jumps between significant events in Callahan’s story while periodically touching back on misplaced framing sequences of speaking engagements meant to bookend the narrative but instead are shoehorned awkwardly in medias res. Personally, I find it frustrating that a story as potentially powerful as Callahan’s got short shrift from Van Sant. But then again, maybe I’ve just never forgiven him for that Psycho remake.