Monday, April 14, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Raymond J. Barry, Conner Rayburn
Running Time: 95 minutes

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

You know a comedy is off to a good start when you hit the floor laughing hysterically on the first joke. Jake Kasdan's musical biopic send-up Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story maintains nearly all of that momentum throughout its 95-minute running time. It's the rare spoof that's actually hilarious, mainly because it's lampooning a genre of film that hasn't been mocked that frequently, and as a result, the comedy feels inspired. It features an uproarious starring turn from John C. Reilly and is further bolstered by a clever Judd Apatow co-written script that knows all the targets it has to hit and nails them with pinpoint accuracy.

Almost in spite of itself, it's also a involving story in which we actually end up caring a little about the main character. If the film has any flaws it's that viewing the Walk The Line is an absolute prerequisite for anyone hoping to pick up on all the humor. Johnny Cash isn't the only target, as Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Elvis also take a huge thrashing, but he's the major one and its plot follows exactly the same plot formula as that 2005 film. The movie behaves like it really is an Oscar-baiting biopic and that's why it works so well.

Unfortunately, a side effect of this film is that I may never be able to watch Walk The Line the same way again. I'm a big fan of biopics in general but I don't think I fully appreciated just how clich├ęd and ridiculous they can be until seeing this. It hits on some silly truths about those films that almost make audiences look like idiots for liking them. In many ways, it's the ultimate compliment to have your movie spoofed, but on the other, if it's done really well it can make the original work look stupid. That's kind of what we have here. It's so good that the biopic, as we know it, may not be able to recover. But I guess if you're going to be spoofed, it's important that you're spoofed well and Apatow has it nailed down. While I loved Superbad, I'm one of the few who thought that Knocked Up didn't click. But Apatow's at the top of his game here with this. It's a big surprise and I can't recall a second when I wasn't laughing...hard.

As a young boy growing up in Springberry, Alabama, Dewey Cox (Reilly) lived in the shadow of his musically gifted brother Nate. After a freak machete accident took Nate's life, Dewey, hoping to carry on the family legacy, learned the blues. Before he's even out of his teens Dewey skyrockets to fame during the early days of rock and roll and what follows is a whirlwind trip through all the stages of Dewey's life. It hits on everything from the flower power era of 60's right through to the groovy 70's, as each touchstone offers up something new for the clever script to ridicule. The drug abuse, band infighting, the financial excess and marital infidelity are all well covered.

After his first marriage to chronically unsupportive wife Edith (Kristen Wiig) collapses he falls for his backup singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer), who becomes the love of his life. Fischer, who was given nothing to do in another 2007 comedy, Blades of Glory, is great here giving a hilarious take of Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter Cash. It's also jam-packed with cameos, from The White Stripes' Jack White as Elvis to Frankie Munez as Buddy Holly. But the funniest comes from Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman as the Fab Four. I particularly enjoyed Rudd and Schwartzman's dead-on portrayals of John and Ringo. In a hilarious touch, none of these famous characters are the least bit shy about informing Dewey (and us) exactly who they are.

As bad a beating as The Beatles take in this though it's nothing compared to what they do to Bob Dylan. After watching this, I now understand why Dylan didn't want anyone to go the regular biopic route with his life because he may have actually come off looking as silly as he does here. Credit Reilly who channels Dylan so well he should have played one of them in I'm Not There. Running gags involving Saturday Night Live's Tim Meadows as Dewey's drug dealing drummer and Raymond J. Barry as Dewey's angry, disapproving father never grow tired. He has a catchphrase that deserves its own t-shirt. Look late in the film for some big music star cameos, including one from someone who plays it so straight he could be presenting The Nobel Peace Prize. And what Apatow film would be complete without an appearance from Jonah Hill?

Then there's the music. Besides the lyrics being hysterical and filled with double entendres (especially the number "Let's Duet"), the songs actually sound like something Cash would have recorded. Supposedly Reilly actually toured the country as Dewey Cox, giving concerts in character. I can believe it. The guy can sing. In a movie like this tone is everything and Kasdan, who also directed the underrated Orange County, realizes everything is funnier when you appear to take it seriously. At times this veers so close the movie it's spoofing it threatens to actually turn into it. Since its success is so dependent on tone I'm not sure if this would have been as funny if Apatow directed it himself. He's probably a better writer than director and I thought, unlike Kasdan here, he had problems finding the appropriate tone in Knocked Up. It may not be coincidence the two films he only co-wrote or produced this past year were much better. This news bodes well for the upcoming Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Pineapple Express, neither of which he's behind the camera for.

Surprisingly, Walk Hard flopped hard when it was released late last year, which is ironic considering serious biopics never tend to light the box office on fire either. That could have been part of the problem. Everyone missed out, though it deservedly nab two Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song ("Walk Hard") and Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Reilly. The blame for no one going to see this definitely can't be placed on him or the fact he isn't a household name (Seth Rogen and Steve Carell weren't either). It seemed the studio felt the Apatow tag alone would be enough to sell this and didn't count on the fact that not everyone had actually seen Walk The Line. It's still funny if you didn't, but will play much better if you have.

The Two Disc Special Edition comes with two versions of the film. One is the original 95-minute theatrical version while the other is the "Overlong, Self-indulgent" 120-minute director's cut. I guess that's supposed to be a joke, but with the length obsessed Apatow attached to the project I couldn't be sure. You can guess which version I chose. A full two hours would probably be stretching it for a movie like this.

You have to wonder what audiences are thinking though flocking to brainless spoof films like Epic Movie and Meet The Spartans instead of this. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is more reminiscent of the superior Zucker/Abrahams comedies like Airplane! or The Naked Gun. It knows the key to a good spoof is to have genuine affection and respect for the material you're spoofing. Anyone who hasn't seen Walk The Line will want to after watching this, even if I have my doubts whether they'll be able to take it seriously

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