While sitting in the beautiful Friedrichstadt-Palast on a Wednesday morning, waiting for the movie to begin, it struck me: Since Gus Van Sant's 2003 masterpiece, Elephant, I've only seen one of his movies in a theater -- Milk. And while I've seen every one of his movies leading up to Milk (except for Finding Forrester), and love a good number of them, I haven't seen any of the three movies he's made since then. Sure, Land of Trees, Promised Land and Restless haven't been greeted with anything resembling even mild appreciation, I still felt like I've been the one who's dropped the ball in our relationship.
Perhaps it's a good sign as to just how much I liked his latest, the recovery tale called Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, but I'm now eager to catch up with Restless and Land of Trees (as with Finding Forrester, I still have a hard time finding interest to see Promised Land).
Like Milk and Good Will Hunting, this new film exists in something of a Van Sant Sweet Spot, where the transgressive tendencies and Bela Tarr-isms are put on hold for a story that is still about an outsider yet told in an audience-friendly manner. This time around, the outsider is John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic who goes on a drinkathon with Jack Black, which ends in a car crash that leaves John a quadriplegic. What follows are missteps and twelve steps, hitting multiple rock bottoms but finding liberation and meaning in a second act as a button-pushing cartoonist. (The title comes from a line in one of his cartoons, it's what the leader of a wild west posse says after coming across a tipped-over wheelchair in the desert.)
While Phoenix is one of the greatest actors working today, I was still surprised by how well he conveys John's slow and clumsy journey from messy drunk to some version of clarity and sobriety. Phoenix has gotten so good since the days of Van Sant's To Die For that it's hardly worth mentioning how perfectly he captures all the detailed physical elements of his largely wheelchair-bound performance, the more impressive bits are how he conveys the messy emotions, the raw, exposed nerves and all the recognizably flawed humanity that make him a sympathetic guy. One of the many admirable things about the movie is the appropriately long time it takes for John to get past all the scuzzy drunkard shadings, through all the anger and self-pity, and finally into something resembling understanding and fulfillment.
On this path, both John and Phoenix get big help from an amazing Jonah Hill, who nails his role as John's bullshit-free AA sponsor, Donnie, a guy who's inheritance has left him with a mansion in the middle of the woody Pacific Northwest, but would rather be in a city with some decent gay bars. Donnie is sweet, hilarious and so far one of Hill's greatest achievements. I had no idea that he had this character in him and he not only holds his own against Phoenix, he gives this supporting character such depth and warmth that he steals practically every scene he's in.
Donnie's little support group is eclectic mix that includes Kim Gordon and Udo Kier, as well as a cancerous and cantankerous Beth Ditto who's there to take John down a few pegs when he gets too wrapped up in his own predictable recovery bullshit. As everyone keeps telling John, he's "right on time" as he slowly learns how to do things like accept his limitations, forgive others and forgive himself. Not to give too much away, but there's a scene in the back half of the movie which serves as a strong reminder that Jack Black is capable of far more than goofy shtick. It doesn't last more than a few minutes, but at this moment I was welling-up with tears and cursing the movie for being so good. In most hands, this scene would be manipulative dreck, but Van Sant and crew truly earn it.
Don't Worry... overflows with humanity, which is unusual for a movie about alcoholism or addiction since they rarely manage to find the grace and humor that Van Sant achieves here. This subject is filled with pitfalls, especially if you want to be both honest and compelling; plus, shudder to think, uplifting and hopeful. The more common route is to go dark -- whether they're cautionary tale or portraits of troubled souls. Affliction, Days of Wine and Roses, Ironweed, Leaving Las Vegas, a good amount of Fassbinder's films -- these are just a few of the good ones that can be insightful yet tough to endure the one time, never mind wanting to revisit. Very few of these films shoot for honest and uplifting since that target could easily end up being naive and pandering. To put it another way, there are more movies about the damage of alcoholism than there are about recovery, and most of the time they're populated with characters you don't want to spend much time with. Somehow, Gus Van Sant has made an honest movie about addiction that has very few assholes. Amazing feat, that.
The underrated Michael Keaton vehicle, Clean and Sober, comes to mind as another movie that is both honest and redemptive, though it only gets as far as the first thirty days of recovery. In Don't Worry..., we get to see years of John working the program, and I may be missing something but I think that makes the movie pretty unique and even valuable.