Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot

A- biopic
Written by Gus Van Sant, from John Callahan’s autobiography
Directed by Gus Van Sant

If you’re looking for a cinematic argument against alcohol addiction, this biopic of paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan makes a very strong argument. The film also gives you a strong sense of how Alcoholics Anonymous works.

If it had not been for his drinking, Callahan would have a full, functioning body. But a car accident lost him the complete use of his legs and left him with limited control over other important body parts. Callahan wasn’t driving at the time, but the friend behind the wheel (Jack Black is a short but important role) was equally blotto. If John had been sober, he never would have climbed into that car.

But Don’t Worry isn’t a lecture; it’s a movie, and an often funny one. In Gus Van Sant’s sympathetic hands, the accident becomes Callahan’s salvation, bringing him to Alcoholics Anonymous and inspiring him to help others. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that so clearly showed the agonies and triumphs of overcoming addiction.

John Callahan was no role model – even after he stopped drinking. He rode his electric wheelchair around town at dangerous speeds. He gained modest fame as a cartoonist by offending people. (That he could draw at all was remarkable, considering the limited use of his hands.) Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan as a superficially nice guy who grows with his adversity. I assume that Van Sant’s telling of Callahan’s story is heavily fictionized.

The film covers a little more than a decade of Callahan’s life, from his accident at the age of 21 through his initial struggles with AA and his becoming semi-famous. He died in 2010, at the age of 59.

Much of the film covers his early time at AA. His sponsor, a born-wealthy gay man (an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill), tries hard to get Callahan to believe in a higher power. In an early AA meeting, John makes fun of an overweight woman with a southern accent. Her response helps him open up to others. We see him going through at least some of the 12 steps, including a sequence when he apologizes to various people about his past behavior. We’re never sure if he really accepted that higher power, but he stopped drinking.

I don’t have strong feelings for AA, myself. It seems to work well for a great many people. Other systems probably work just as well.

Occasionally the movie feels extremely unlikely. For instance, Callahan’s first post-accident sexual experience is in the hospital, with a nurse, while his roommate cheers them on. I don’t know whether that story comes from Van Sant’s screenplay or Callahan’s autobiography, but either way, I doubt it ever happened.

In the end, this is a feel-good movie. But it’s a feel-good movie that acknowledges that we live in a really crappy world.