Gus Van Sant manages to recover from recent poor choices (Sea of Trees, Promised Land) with the help of Joaquin Phoenix and an inspired cast of A-listers in supporting roles. The vehicle is perhaps less impressive than any of its component parts, but the somewhat tired theme of personal redemption is at least given a new lease on life with a totally bonkers take on addiction porn. Basically a biopic of the parapalegic cartoonist John Callahan (Phoenix), who died in 2010 at the age of 59, Don’t Worry trades mainly in black comedy undercut by some rather nasty truths about human nature. Set in the 1970s and 80s, the script moves liberally back-and-forth in time with little regard for narrative coherence, which actually saves the film from having to justify Callahan’s actions or even make sense of them.
Raised in a foster home, Callahan turns into something of an asshole, especially during the 70s when PC culture had yet to make any kind of impression. He’s an alcoholic drawn to other alcoholics, one of whom, a nerdy, needy misanthrope named Dexter (Jack Black, turning his patented bro persona into a force of evil), becomes his nemesis-enabler, and after a particularly drunken night in his company Callahan wraps his VW around a telephone pole, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Not only does this misfortune not curb his excesses, it exacerbates them, and after several years Callahan finally enters rehab only because he’s alienated any nurses assigned to help him and can’t open booze containers on his own.
From here Van Sant mostly works on instinct, interspersing comically charge anecdotes (the one with the skaters is particularly well done, channeling better Van Sant movies like Paranoid Park) with pointedly dramatic bottom-scraping episodes, moments of relative tenderness featuring Callahan’s wife, Annu (Rooney Mara), and interludes with his AA sponsor/mentor, Donnie (Jonah Hill), whose hippie line of counseling turns out to be the perfect foil for Callahan’s particular brand of cynical bullshit. And while Callahan’s sourly crass cartoons figure in the cinematic structures, they don’t stand in for anything that can’t be expressed better through live action and dialogue. As a result, the humor is honest, the pathos penetrating, and the life’s lessons tolerable and sometimes even didactic in a positive way. Equally funny is seeing all these actors in period dress trying to take on the airs of the pre-internet cultural zeitgeist. It’s a kind of inadvertent bonus because you know they did their research by watching old Paul Mazursky films.
Opens May 3 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjukuu Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
Don’t Worry home page in Japanese.
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