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Film Reviews Review: Joaquin Phoenix rises from Gus Van Sant’s ambivalence in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Joaquin Phoenix stars as John Callahan in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.

Scott Patrick Green/Amazon Studios

  • Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
  • Written and directed by: Gus Van Sant
  • Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara
  • Classification: 14A; 113 minutes
  • Opens July 20 in Toronto

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It is cheap to start a review with a rhetorical question, but so much of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot feels thrifty, so: Is there any leading man today producing better work than Joaquin Phoenix? Across his stellar work with Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, Inherent Vice), Spike Jonze (Her), James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers, We Own the Night) and Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Phoenix is enjoying one of the most intimidating streaks in recent memory.

The actor – never a simple chameleon, but someone who disappears into a role entirely with a frightening conviction – continues to display new and tremendous range here with his latest drama, a biopic of paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan. And his decision to reteam with his To Die For director Gus Van Sant must have seemed wise on paper. Yet, throughout Don’t Worry, Phoenix is left to burden the entirety of the production, with Van Sant constructing an aggressively conventional character study that attempts to constrain and diminish Phoenix’s efforts at every turn.

Van Sant has some fun with the briefly time-jumping narrative, but otherwise it’s shocking how little interest he seems to have in his subject. At least the director helps his star by filling out the supporting cast with performers who do their best to match Phoenix’s dedication, including a wonderful Jonah Hill as Callahan’s skeptical AA sponsor and Rooney Mara as the cartoonist’s off-and-on love interest.

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Ending an article with a rhetorical question is another cheap move, I realize, but: Can one wan directing job mute the sheer performance power of Joaquin Phoenix? The answer, of course, is no. Not this time, at least.

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