Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

I cannot accurately pinpoint the moment Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story became my go-to lounge film. I saw it in theaters upon release only because one member in my group of friends insisted that we all go, and I found it enjoyable but too broad. I picked up the DVD to see the extended cut (so appropriately subtitled "The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director's Cut" that I'm still not sure whether the filmmakers released it as a joke on the crass manipulation of justly cut footage as a promotional device or if they were simply trying to protect themselves from backlash), watched it once and filed it away in the "to-sell" pile.

Before I could hock it, however, something compelled me to re-watch the film's theatrical cut. What I got was one of the funniest comedies of the decade, and the only genre parody in that time to even approach the level of hilarity of the films (and transgressive sitcom) directed by Edgar Wright. To say that I see new jokes with these new viewings would imply that I'm a gibbering idiot, as Walk Hard hedges to the Mel Brooks side of parodies, that of vaudevillian broadsides that can be seen from outer space. I know my way around enough of the musical mythos of the mid-'50s through the end of the '60s, though even a cursory knowledge is unnecessary to pick up on the flagrantly stressed digs at rockabilly, Bob Dylan and The Beatles (the only reference that might slip by those without a curious interest in classic rock is a Brian Wilson-esque studio meltdown). Unlike the most nuanced of comedies -- including the greatest rock movie of them all, This is Spinal Tap -- Walk Hard will not surprise viewers with new gags on repeat viewings.

What those viewings do reveal, however, is one of the most endlessly quotable comedies in years, especially for those who understand that, for all the movie's jabs at the various styles of pop in the mid-20th century, Walk Hard skewers not rock music but the increasingly banal, prefabricated manner with which it is documented in puff pieces posing at cinematic biographies. With promotional material most clearly establishing the film as a parody of Walk the Line, Walk Hard openly references other contemporary biopics like Ray and even classic documentaries like Don't Look Back. However, like Brooks' classic parodies, Walk Hard does not limit itself to specific genre satire. It cannot afford to, as it fits into that realm of parody that relies on a joke every minute, either a visual gag or a sharp one-liner. Of all the types of comedy, this method is the hardest to pull off and the one that usually results in the worst films, but the more I watch it, the more I think Walk Hard manages to walk that line (hard).

Certainly, one could (rightly) attribute much of the film's success to its perfect casting of John C. Reilly in the lead. Reilly can switch between dramatic gravitas, everyman relatability and broad comic absurdity like no actor since Tom Hanks. Like Hanks, Reilly is dashing enough to enjoy a steady career while being just off-center from typical Hollywood looks (and thus closer to the center of the rest of the populace) to make an audience feel more familiar around him, even when they're looking at his face magnified to the size of a giant screen. Reilly's casting alone seems on some level a reference to Jamie Foxx and how Ray practically erased his previous career as a comedian in the public consciousness and established him as a Serious Actor. Walk Hard approaches this from the other end; Reilly established himself as a dynamic character in the beginning of the new millennium, building off his memorable turns in Boogie Nights and Magnolia to win numerous plaudits for his work in Chicago (for which he received an Oscar nomination), Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Aviator and A Prairie Home Companion. By 2007, however, Reilly had already begun to reinvent himself as a more comedic performer, having appeared in Talladega Nights and the Tenacious D movie, as well as starting up as a regular on the avant-garde comedy program Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

Reilly's Dewey Cox is modeled after Johnny Cash, of course, and the film's opening moments are also its most tasteless, as writer-director Jake Kasdan plays on Cash's traumatic loss of his brother in a table saw accident that plagued the artist with guilt for the rest of his life. This farcical remix shows young Dewey and his brother Nate, a child prodigy on the piano, engaging in wildly dangerous acts, all the while insisting that nothing bad can come from them before a machete fight (no, really) ends in disaster.

Crass as this intro may be, it finely sets up Walk Hard's strategy of parody as the ultimate exaggeration. Once the film settles on Reilly, who takes over for the child actor even when Dewey's meant to be a teenager, Walk Hard moves away from this quasi-offensive material into an unrelenting attack on biopic tropes. At various stages, Reilly openly declares how old he's meant to be despite the lack of any effort to disguise his real age -- hysterically bad makeup is used for Dewey's elder years. Every actor appearing as a real musician, from Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly to Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman as The Beatles, remind the audience routinely who they are playing, fitting comfortably into the practice of biographical filmmakers who cater to those who don't know the stories of each artist while still placing focus on the apocryphal myths that shape that person's legend. The incessant 3rd-person self-referral underscores why this practice neither sparks enough interest in the unknowing moviegoer to impress and alienates the true fans who feel as if they're being condescended to.

Elsewhere, Kasdan mercilessly frames some of the most crowd-pleasing aspects of biopics in unflattering close-up. Dewey, having dropped out of high school and run away from his father, who never forgave Dewey for the incident with Nate -- to this day, I cannot watch Raymond J. Barry in a performance given before or after this without thinking of his refrain, "The wrong kid died!" -- realizes his dream when offered a recording contract. But that uplifting feeling of satisfaction catches in the throat when, just before, Dewey attracted the attention of producers when he fills in a club spot for an injured black rock artist, whom he completely rips off, down to stage banter. Dewey's musical career itself goes through all the ups and downs you might expect, from his random snatches of inspiration when he says something we know will become a song title, and he pauses as he understands it too. Meanwhile, he only spends enough time with his first wife (the always wonderful Kristen Wiig) to impregnate her, only to return to the drugs and groupies on the road.

Anyone who's ever watched more than one biopic within a close time range knows how many elements often overlap, and the greatest joke of Walk Hard is how, when Dewey is locked in detox to overcome drug addiction or trying to win the love of a woman who knows him well enough to avoid a committed relationship, it is not immediately apparent which artist/biographical film is being spoofed. The conceit of biopics is that they show us profiles of those with more interesting and unique lives than a normal person's, but the cycle of success, drugs, fallout and quiet recovery is so ubiquitous that these celebrities seem to be hitting marks even in real life. Goofy as it is, Walk Hard forces one to consider that biopics largely get picked up because they come with a built-in audience base and continue to enjoy critical raves from those who so rarely spot how many are the same.

Cox's story, like Spinal Tap's, gets maximum comedy from its musical element because it does not tie its protagonist to one genre. In fact, Dewey only ever remotely resembles Johnny Cash when he records the title song, sings with June Carter stand-in Darlene (Jenna Fischer), and when Dewey finds himself in the same soul-crushing, watered-down variety show Cash found himself hosting after he got sober but found that he'd burned too many bridges in his wild days. Reilly impressively runs through a convincing pastiche of rockabilly, Roy Orbison balladry, Dylanesque political awareness and surreality, experimental pop pomp in the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds/Smile -era, even proto-punk when an amphetamine-addled Dewey forces his band to run through "Walk Hard" at warp speed. Each of these snippets, some longer than others delve into the hypocrisy of these various rockers, from Orbison's plaintive ballads standing in contrast to the casual adultery of road touring to the supposed mind-opening properties of drugs serving mainly to help drive genuinely talented but already unbalanced people like Brian Wilson to madness.

In all of these twists and turns, Walk Hard never fails to throw out a one-liner at every turn. Nuggets like "learn to play the fucking theremin!" and "I do believe in you! I just know you're going to fail!" are just some of the nearly endless supply of quotable lines to be found in the film. At two separate points in the last month, I found myself talking about Walk Hard with people online, and in both cases the conversation led to posting various lines we loved, a back-and-forth that lasted hours because everyone had their own favorites. Where so many films in the loosely defined boundaries of the Apatow "collective" separate their one-liners with their heart, Walk Hard avoids the issue altogether by dispensing with any life lesson to focus entirely on parody and satire. Each zinger in Walk Hard can be said out of context between buddies, but they also contain barbs that flesh out the film's parody. I correctly pegged Walk Hard as an unsubtle movie when I first saw it, but I did not recognize that its lack of nuance is its strongest asset.

Reilly is boosted by entertaining supporting work from Chris Parnell, Wiig, Barry, Fischer, Tim Meadows and more, but no one sells the silliness of it all like the star. Lightweight as the movie is, Reilly does give one of those performances that makes the film, stretching himself farther than most who eventually collect awards for the more ponderous interpretations of the stiffly structured blueprint lampooned here. His bashful yet cocky delivery of the insanity of the dialogue gives lines funny on paper life, balancing the line between the innocent kid caught in a hedonistic lifestyle that overwhelms him and a battle-hardened veteran of the trenches that all films about rock stars from humble origins -- even the joke ones -- must demonstrate. There have been a number of better comedies made in the last decade of various levels of sophistication, but I simply have to respect this lowbrow goof-off for being more instantly watchable, endlessly quotable and just plain raucous, than anything short of In the Loop. Lord willing, enough other people might come to believe this that it slips into what The A.V. Club terms the "New Cult Canon."

60 comments:

  1. Yeah, I adore this flick, which deserves a much better rep than it has. (It had the misfortune of coming out right on the heels of the writers' strike, and the critical reception was pretty cranky.) Anthony Lane once wrote that you can weigh the effectiveness of satire by how unable you are subsequently to watch its targets with a straight face. In the case of "Walk the Line" and "Ray" (particularly the running gag of the same guy doing drugs in the bathroom), I can no longer view either of them without snickering. So, mission accomplished.

    Also, I don't know if you've seen it, but I'm getting a kick out of Raymond Barry's recurring part on FX's "Justified." Like you, I can't help but think, "The wrong keeeeed died!" I also bust a gut every time at his sublime delivery of, "That's what your music does. It kills people."

    Thanks for giving some love to this movie.

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  2. Surprisingly a funny film that spoofs some of the best music figures.

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