Joaquin Phoenix gives another incredible performance in this excellent new film from Gus Van Sant. The actor is a true chameleon and always believable. Here, he plays the late John Callahan, a talented cartoonist who was also a quadriplegic and an alcoholic. Wallowing in his misery, it takes him time to try attending a group meeting led by Jonah Hill, who lives in a mansion and seems to have no ambition except to help others in need. Slowly, Phoenix begins to absorb the 12-step program’s lessons and requirements. Hill reminds him that his problems won’t magically disappear when he completes the program; he will have to deal with them for the rest of his life.
Van Sant never overplays his hand and offers a feeling of authenticity from start to finish, even filming in Callahan’s home town of Portland, Oregon. Phoenix’s commitment is matched by an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Rooney Mara, and a fine supporting cast. But it’s Phoenix who commands the screen and breaks your heart. He can be morose, sardonically funny, or self-pitying; he makes us feel it all vicariously.
Don’t Worry is a tough movie, all the more so because it’s true, no matter how many dramatic liberties may have been taken. The story is attributed to Callahan (who published his autobiography in 1989 and died in 2010), Jack Gibson, and William Andrew Eatman, but final story and screenplay credit goes to Van Sant. The filmmaker uses a visual motif based on Callahan’s clever pen-and-ink drawings that’s darkly whimsical and highly effective. Animation is a perfect way to get inside the cartoonist’s head and allow us to share his emotions.
If you’re not familiar with Callahan’s work, you’ll find many of his books still in print, including his autobiography. This film may inspire you to learn more about the artist.