This Gus Van Sant movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a cleverly volatile, infuriatingly random take on disabled alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan.

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Movie review

If you have ever hung out with an incorrigible drunk, then you will immediately appreciate the dramatic beats of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s cleverly volatile, infuriatingly random take on disabled alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan. Self-pitying or smug, jaunty or crestfallen, callous or contrite, the movie’s fitful tone is fully yoked to Joaquin Phoenix’s sodden-to-sober lead performance. Maybe that is why the camera works so hard to maintain an even keel.

We meet Callahan (who died in 2010) after a bender, racing to the store to refill before the DTs set in. He will remain precariously pickled even after a fateful night of partying in 1972 with an equally soused pal (Jack Black) leaves him quadriplegic and entirely dependent on his lackadaisical caregiver. Only when hoisting bottle to mouth becomes impossible without help does he decide it is time to drag his sorry self up the 12 steps.

Neither embracing nor completely skirting the sinkholes of the recovery narrative — among them sanctimony, sentiment and backslapping triumphalism — Van Sant (adapting Callahan’s 1990 memoir of the same name) marshals a number of countervailing strategies. Adopting an erratic, flashback-fortified style, he disrupts the typical plod to sobriety. Offbeat casting decisions enliven Callahan’s otherwise repetitive Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, including reliably odd Udo Kier and marvelous turns from musicians Beth Ditto of Gossip and Kim Gordon (formerly of Sonic Youth).

The movie’s most effective antidote to piousness, though, is Callahan’s corrosive sense of humor. Sometimes scabrous and always irreverent, his cartoons swipe gleefully at disability and other sensitive topics, piercing the movie’s one-day-at-a-time orthodoxy. His hard-won, childlike drawing technique softened these provocations, yet his grim gaze could be divisive — a controversy that Van Sant glides past with little drama or detail.

Which is too bad, because that surrenders a large chunk of screen time to the trudge of recovery and Callahan’s maudlin callbacks to the mother who abandoned him and whom he blames for his addiction. This wallowing can become claustrophobic; so it is a relief to accompany Callahan as he barrels around his native Portland, Oregon, in his motorized wheelchair, wiping out on street corners and goofing with a group of young skateboarders. These excursions, captured with reckless fluidity by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, aerate the movie and temporarily dispel the dust of Higher Power earnestness.

Nothing, however, can excuse the movie’s preposterous depiction of Annu (a purely decorative Rooney Mara). A stunner in a sundress (and a composite of several women in Callahan’s life), she appears before the hospitalized Callahan so drenched in angel dust she could be an illusion. The whole episode is classic inspirational mush.

Staggering between corny conventionality and zesty, upbeat weirdness, “Don’t Worry” never fully acknowledges the cruelty and selfishness required to sustain a longtime habit. Callahan’s Step 9 trek to make amends is accomplished with remarkable ease, and his support group is a haven of simpatico sufferers.

None more so than its leader, Donnie (a revelatory Jonah Hill). A trust-fund Christian in flowing scarves and suede jackets, Donnie moves in a haze of Lao Tzu quotations and enigmatic recovery-speak, punctuated by the delicate arcs of his cigarette holder. The benevolent tugs between his chill philosophizing and Callahan’s indulgent egotism have a relaxed, buddy-movie appeal; he is the tonic in Callahan’s gin.

“Maybe life’s not supposed to be as meaningful as we think it is,” a fellow addict says during group, perhaps realizing that self-absorption can be an even tougher habit to kick than booze. Like most of us, Callahan, by movie’s end, is not quite there yet.
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“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” with Joaquin Phoenix, Jack Black, Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill. Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, based on a memoir by John Callahan. 113 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and alcohol abuse. Opens July 20 at multiple theaters.

The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.