The film is primarily a celebration of the 12 Steps. David Edelstein, Vulture, regarding Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
More insightful than riveting, the film is doggedly focused on the work of recovery, and Callahan’s unending quest to be real with himself—because as he comes to understand, only then can he begin to live for other people. Steve MacFarlane, Slant
The first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. This and the 11 others form the basis of the AA program, which real-life cartoonist John Callahan (1951-2010) attends in Gus Van Sant‘s new Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on Callahan’s memoir.
Why won’t he get far on foot? Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) became a quadriplegic at 21 following a car accident. Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:
His party buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), was driving when their powder-blue VW bug hit a lamppost. The fact that Callahan’s hedonistic partner-in-crime escaped without a scratch initially gnawed at him and it took years of counseling to achieve acceptance.
A.A. Dowd, AVClub, adds that this, however, is not the main theme:
Don’t worry, Don’t Worry isn’t some tearfully inspirational tribute to Callahan’s triumph over his disability. It’s a tearfully inspirational tribute to his triumph over alcoholism. Based on the artist’s memoir of the same name, which heavily chronicled his battle with the bottle, the film believes so deeply in the AA process, in its value and necessity and effectiveness, that it could reasonably be retitled 12 Steps: The Movie. (There’s a whole montage devoted to step nine, with Callahan embarking on a rather literal apology tour.)
Step Nine, by the way: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
AA meetings are actually a considerable part of the film. Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times:
Generously holding court at these meetings is Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, a rich, world-weary gay man played by a terrific Jonah Hill, all but unrecognizable with his long hair, thick beard and magnificent wardrobe. The movie doesn’t overdo the comedy of Donnie’s trust-fund Jesus look or his extravagantly marbled estate. It’s hard to overstate the sheer affection Hill pours into this characterization, distilling fey playfulness (he calls the people he sponsors ‘my piglets’), droll cynicism and soulful intensity into a mix of philosophical wisdom and practical advice. Tough love never felt so palpable.
David Edelstein, Vulture, on the AA quasi-realism:
A film like Don’t Worry…can rise or fall on those AA group-therapy sessions, and these are the best I’ve seen. They’re actually not formal AA events, though…Unlike regular AA meetings, these have ‘cross-talk’ — i.e., lots of interruptions and opportunities to vent, and Van Sant evidently encouraged a spontaneous flow. No less than Kim Gordon plays the ex-suburban housewife and Valium addict who tells a story about wandering her neighborhood buck naked…A first-time actress, the 36-year-old musician Beth Ditto, all but takes over as the large and lovably extroverted member of the group.
A clip below that features Gordon and Ditto in an improvised scene:
And how does it all turn out for Callahan? Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “’Maybe life’s not supposed to be as meaningful as we think it is,’ a fellow addict says during group, perhaps realizing that self-absorption can be an even tougher habit to kick than booze. Like most of us, Callahan, by movie’s end, is not quite there yet.”