A film review by Craig J. Koban

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY jj
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2007, R, 96 mins.

 

Dewey Cox: John C. Reilly / Darlene Madison: Jenna Fischer / Pa Cox: Raymond J. Barry / Edith: Kristen Wiig / Sam: Tim Meadows / L'Chai'm: Harold Ramis / Theo: Chris Parnell

Directed by Jake Kasdan /  Written by Judd Apatow and Kasdan.

"Life made him tough.  Life made him strong.  Music made him hard."

Tagline from "WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY"

 

Dewey Cox most certainly had a long and hard childhood.  You just might say that he had to spend the rest of his adult life walking hard.

Born to an impoverished Alabama family, young Dewey lived under the constant scorn of a father that never loved him, not to mention that he had a younger brother that was an aspiring piano prodigy.  He always loved his sibling, but Dewey always felt second fiddle to him.  Unfortunately, Deweyís brother would never make it to the big time. 

Why?  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that - during a playful and spirited machete fight in a barn - Dewey accidentally cut his brother in half at the waist.  When the family doctor recalls viewing the damage done, he very aptly states, "Now, this was a very bad case of somebody being cut in half."

Of course, this does not sit well with Deweyís dad, who for the rest of his life tells the lad that, "The wrong son died."  Dewey does not let this get to him.  Instead, he channels his fatherís disdain and genuine lack of support into his own musical career.  He elopes with his 12-year-old love of his life, learns to play instruments at ease, starts to play at nightclubs, is noticed by a big record producer, and eventually starts to have several number one hits and engages on a concert tour.  Along for the ride on his meteoric rise to fame are the usually temptations of becoming a famous musician, like booze, drugs, committing adulterous affairs, participating in orgies, and eventually fathering enough children to populate a small continent.

Now, if WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX story feels seriously familiar, than that is no coincidence.  People that have seen recent musical biopics like RAY and WALK THE LINE can easily spot similarities between Coxís rise to fame with that of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, perhaps a bit more towards the latter.  Cox, Cash, and Charles all  came from relative obscurity under very poor upbringings.  Cox and Charles both shame the same level of guilt over the loss of siblings (granted, Charles never had a machete fight with his brother).  Cox and Cash hit the road on concert tours and crossed paths with many a famous musician, Elvis in particular.  Cox and Cash, most crucially, committed adultery, became terribly addicted to drugs and both would require multiple trips to rehab.  Oh...I guess that on certain basic levels, all three men faced a long, hark walk to fame.

WALK HARD was the initial brainchild of Jake Kasdan (who made a small little gem from a few years back called THE ZERO EFFECT and the very funny ORANGE COUNTY) who - like many film viewers - noticed that many of the recent musical biopics seemed carved out of similar elements, if not having the same basic plot structure.  Joining Kasdan for the ride is the current king of cinematic comedy, Judd Apatow, who made two of the funniest films of the last few years in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and this yearís KNOCKED UP.

The film operates on many divergent - and often competing - levels:  Itís a tongue-in-cheek satire and jovial farce ala THIS IS SPINAL TAP!, a parody of the type of genre films it tries to emulate, and a spoof - akin to AIRPLANE! - of many other film making constructs and clichťs.  I think that part of the problem is that the film can never really settle on a style.  There are far too many sections of it that inspire more groans than laughs, especially while it's trying to be a winning parody.  Like those previous screen parodies, the jokes come flying, but for every one that works in WALK HARD there are two or three that fail miserably.  I think that if the film avoided this concentration of being a spoof and instead went out to be an all out farce, like ANCHORMAN and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY, then the comedy would have felt more even-handed and consistent.  WALK HARD tries to be a bit of everything, and its saturated approach kind of impedes its overall affect.

And...most importantly...the film is never really consistently funny.  Compared to the laugh riots of Apatowís resume, this is easily the weakest of them, which is disagreeably a let down in hindsight.  WALK HARD is certainly smarter and craftier than many of the truly awful screen comedies that have been released this year, but there are moments where the comedy in the film feels a bit too forced and contrived. The film feels clever and its easy to admire it for that, but its cleverness sometimes overwhelms the actual laughs.

One thing that WALK HARD has going for it is a go-for-broke and frequently earnest performance by John C. Reilly in the title role, who manages to harness the characterís inherent silliness and whimsical tone alongside playing things pretty straight.  Playing the broader elements of the comedy, Reilly easily garners laughs, but when he sings it's kind of astonishing how good he is at channeling Johnny Cash, whom Cox and his story are largely based on.  There is also quite a bit of emotional investment in this goofy persona.  When he is about to go on stage after Elvis, he slumbers in a corner, starts to sob, and complains that he could not possibly top the King (I mean, itís hard not to feel for the guy).  Also, Reilly is able to fire off such ridiculous dialogue so simply and matter-of-factly that he grounds the character even when the scene is outlandish.  When his first wife Edith (Kristen Wiig, funny here) chastises Dewey for marrying another woman and tries to tell him thatís itís illegal, Dewey modestly responds, "Yeah, but...what if yer famous?"

There are some other decent laughs in the film.  I loved how the film does not get teen actors to play Cox and Edith when they're 15 and 12 respectively: Reilly and Wiig play the characters at this age, which is a funny send up of how many films get adults to play adolescents.  When Cox first meets backup singer Darlene (Jena Fischer), there is a strong sexual energy between the two, but they try to subvert their urges by engaging in fun activities that inadvertently reveal a subtle eroticism.  The duets they sing are hilarious bits in terms of their obvious double entendres (at one point Dewey sings, "In my dreams youíre blowing me...some kisses" to which Darlene sings back, "Itís my favourite thing to do!").

Another moment where Dewey hooks up with the Beatles is a small little comic gem.  The Fab Four are played by Jack Black (Paul), Paul Rudd (John), Justin Long (George), and Jason Schwartzman (Ringo), whom are very funny, despite the fact that Black gives the least passable McCartney impersonation.  As the group and Cox talk about music, drugs, and so forth, many members of the Beatles start to viscously berate one another. "Iíve got a song about an octopus," Ringo proudly brags in a drug-hazed stupor, to which Lennon lashes out, "Why donít you jam it up your ass!"

Perhaps the filmís funniest recurring gag shows how Sam (Coxís drummer, played hilariously by Tim Meadows) tempts Dewey with various drugs, starting with marijuana and then going on to bigger, badder drugs as the years go on.  When Dewey first encounters Sam and his posse smoking pot, Sam tells him, "You donít want to get hooked to reefer.  You donít want any of this.  But, it doesnít give you a hangover, itís not habit forming, you canít overdose on it, you canít get addicted to it, it makes sex better, and itís the cheapest drug to be found!"  During the latter years when both are in their 70's, Dewey barges in on Sam taking a new type of drug, but Dewey is now clean and sober and wants nothing to do with any drugs...period.  Yet, Sam pleads with him, "But Dewey, Viagra gives you a boner!!"

As funny as these moments are, there is far too much of WALK HARD that falls flat. Sometimes the dialogue seems so painfully obvious and stilted, as is the case with the film's annoying habit of having Dewey talking to famous celebrities by always reciting their full names, as if we are too stupid to pick up on the people heís talking to.  Other sight gags and jokes go for cheap shock value, like a very odd and surprising bit of full frontal male nudity: the first time its more gratuitous than uproarious, and when the filmmakers feel the need to replay the joke twice, WALK HARD feels a bit desperate for a cheap, exploitative giggle.  The film, as stated, has comedic ambitions and a very funny lead performance, but the whole enterprise feels like a disposable SNL skit playing out its welcome for far too long.  Itís combination of satire and AIRPLANE! style spoof, in the end, simply does not work effectively.  More or less, WALK HARD is a rough assembly of fumbled opportunities.  Instead of marching forward strong and hard, it hobbles by somewhat flaccidly.

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