It’s still July, but this year likely won’t see a longer, or odder, movie title than “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Joaquin Phoenix stars as John Callahan, a highly transgressive quadriplegic cartoonist who died in 2010. How transgressive? The title comes from the caption of a Callahan cartoon that shows some men on horseback looking at an empty wheelchair.
Stop for a moment to let the meaning sink in.
Yes, the caption is in dreadful taste. That’s typical Callahan. It’s also extremely funny. That’s typical Callahan, too.
“Don’t Worry” is not a conventional biopic. That makes sense — Callahan sure isn’t a conventional biopic subject — but that unconventionality can present problems. Sometimes the movie is sentimental. More often, it’s scabrous. Maybe if the movie didn’t feel overlong (trim and tight it’s not), those qualities might seem better balanced.
Gus Van Sant, who directed and helped adapt Callahan’s memoir, keeps many balls up in the air. The movie even includes some animations of Callahan’s cartoons. Over several decades of the cartoonist’s life, “Don’t Worry” shuttles back and forth and up and down. Callahan before his accident, Callahan in a rehabilitation hospital, Callahan at various stages in his recovery from alcoholism, even his romantic relations: Those are the chief cards in the deck, and Van Sant shuffles them like a celluloid croupier. The only way to keep track of the chronology is to pay attention to Phoenix’s hairstyles and eyeglasses. Somehow things never get confusing. That is no small achievement.
Hairstyle and eyewear help, but what keeps the viewer hanging in and keeping faith is Phoenix. “The Master” (2012) made plain that a very good actor had gotten to a place reached by very few of his post-Brando peers. By peers one means the young De Niro, the middle-aged Nicholson — people like that, except that there aren’t any other people like that.
As Callahan, Phoenix displays a rickety authority that’s just right. Minus ricketiness, the authority would be bogus; minus authority, the man who forges a highly successful career (which is even more highly unorthodox) would be Hollywood-hokum implausible.
There’s a hint of desperation whenever Callahan smiles. It’s also there when he doesn’t. Phoenix puts us inside a head whose greatest strength, a tendency to wobble, is also its greatest weakness.
The real revelation in “Don’t Worry” is Jonah Hill. Playing Donnie, a rich, gay Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, he’s barely recognizable. Donnie has long blond beach-boy hair, as if he were a bloated missing Wilson brother. (Also blond is Rooney Mara, as a Swedish stewardess — you can’t make this stuff up, and no Lisbeth Salander jokes, please. She plays Callahan’s chief love interest.) Instead of doing his usual annoying Jonah Hill thing, he offers an other-side-of-no-tomorrow calm that carries all before it. The performance is so commanding, in its absolutely recessive way, that even Donnie’s waving around a cigarette holder doesn’t look silly.
There’s an awful lot of talent in “Don’t Worry.” Jack Black, who makes Hill’s annoying quotient seem negligible by comparison, puts his A.Q. to suitable use as Callahan’s most significant drinking buddy. He and Phoenix later share a wholly improvised scene that’s a marvel of actorly restraint and emotional acuity. The AA sessions at Donnie’s mansion are also something special: alternately funny, harsh, and surprising. They’re a bit like Callahan’s cartoons that way. Both the sessions and cartoons are focused as the film as a whole never quite manages. There’s a truth to life in that shagginess, let alone a life as unusual as Callahan’s. But it does make it hard for “Don’t Worry” to hang together.
DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT
Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Van Sant, John Callahan, Jack Gibson, and William Andrew Eatman; based on Callahan’s memoir. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Rooney Mara, Carrie Brownstein. 115 minutes. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. R (language throughout, sexual content, some nudity, and alcohol abuse)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.