If there's any film genre that's due for a bit of a break it's the "overcoming the odds" biopic about extraordinary individuals battling a debilitating crisis to achieve something great.
Once a shoo-in during awards season, many of these films now come and go from cinemas with a shrug or an eye-roll. American film-maker Gus Van Sant's latest then, the easy-going, improvisational Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, functions as both a celebration of a wonderful life and as a rebuke of those overly congratulatory, shallow biopics of yore.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan, the famously alcoholic and wheelchair-bound newspaper cartoonist, the film takes a meandering, listless approach to deconstructing the man's life before and after the accident that paralysed him.
It's a joy to watch Phoenix completely transform himself as he assumes the role of the tortured, kooky cartoonist. He's joined by Jonah Hill as Callahan's New Age-y AA sponsor, in a turn that is both acidic and surprisingly kind-hearted. Both performers are truly fantastic, as is a small, revelatory turn by Jack Black as a fellow alcoholic, who wrings big tears out of a tiny number of scenes.
However, the film is pretty standard: man has a problem, problem leads to bigger problems, man learns to overcome problems on his own terms.
Commendably, Van Sant mostly avoids overdoing the sentiment or the cheesiness, an approach aided immeasurably by his commitment to realist film-making and letting his performers guide the scenes.
Even the most stock-standard tropes of the genre get a facelift through Van Sant's patient, observational but always interesting visual style.
Running out of steam in the middle and weighed down by a few too many subplots, Don't Worry nevertheless remains a genial, heartwarming experience showcasing some consistently surprising and chameleonic performers.
Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara
Gus Van Sant
M (Sex scenes, offensive language & nudity)
Directorial verve and committed performances elevate stock-standard biopic material.