In the shadow of Hollywood’s year-end push to introduce potential Oscar contenders and mega-budget action movies comes this devastatingly quirky examination of alcoholism from peripatetic writer/director Gus Van Sant (Milk, My Own Private Idaho). At 58, Van Sant has combined feature films with innumerable music videos featuring A-list pop culture superstars. Here, he fashions the autobiography of Oregonian John Callahan into a maddeningly episodic examination of artistic creativity born of crippling addiction. Van Sant’s scabrous dialogue and offhand treatment of the inherently private challenges of sexual satisfaction among those with physical disabilities may be off-putting for many filmgoers, but a brilliant screenplay and spot-on performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black make this a triumphant ode to the resilience of the human spirit.
Callahan, (Joaquin Phoenix) was born and raised in Portland Oregon. An orphan, he drifted into alcoholism during an adolescence laced with anti-social behavior bred in the foster care system that disgorged him onto the streets as an aimless drunk. After a seemingly endless evening of drinking with Dexter, (Jack Black at his maniacal best) a casual friend recruited at a party, Callahan allows his new buddy behind the wheel of a car that puts Callahan in the critical care unit of a local hospital as a newly-minted quadriplegic.
Wearing his new condition as a legitimate excuse for self-absorption, Callahan sinks into self-abasement before an encounter with a Scandinavian airline stewardess, (Mara) prompts him to connect with Donny, (Jonah Hill) the affluent leader of a small AA group. Slowly (and with many a relapse) Callahan puts his artistic talent to use in a series of quirky cartoons radiating with the absurdities of life as seen from the viewpoint of insurmountable physical limitation. Success as both an artist and recovering alcoholic comes slowly but with enduring satisfaction… before Callahan’s death eight years ago at age 59.
Don’t be put off by the director’s shaggy-dog style behind the camera; Van Sant works like an abstract painter, assembling seemingly unrelated scenes which can be appreciated either as independent segments and/or as an integrated whole. While tracing the chaos of daily life as an alcoholic, with its random selfishness and humiliating abasement, Van Sant’s script can seque into a surprisingly articulate bar room exchange about the anti-feminist side of pornography in the course of Callahan’s random daily activates. This kaleidoscopic approach provides Phoenix with a role he mines in a mixture of lacerating anger and gleeful joyfulness at simply being alive. Contrast his performance here with those he delivered in Her and The Master to fully appreciate the range of his skills.
Yet perhaps the most surprising portrait in Don’t Worry can be found in Jonah Hill’s fey performance as Donny, the clear-eyed spiritual leader of a small cadre of recovering alcoholics who need their master’s enigmatic aphorisms (“faith is so hard to teach”) which reflect Donny’s own hard-won self-awareness. Hill’s already extensive screen credits have come from comedic roles, but as his work in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Streat demonstrate, Hill's dramatic skills deserve to be put to greater use. At 35, Hill’s best years are ahead of him.
This nearly 2-hour journey into addiction may wander in and out of its own story line, but it metaphorically conveys the thrall and destructiveness of addiction. Be patient with its apparent randomness and enjoy its stealthy attractions.
The Verdict? A unique cinematic presentation of a subject too often presented as simple sensationalism.
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