Saturday, January 05, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (Jake Kasdan, 2007)

From humble southern roots Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) rises to the top of the music charts, hits bottom, and, of course, finds redemption in the end. WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY tells this familiar show business tale, but unlike other year-end, award-trawling dramatizations of celebrity success and suffering, this one is a goof on rags-to-riches biographical films.

Dewey sets hearts aflutter and ministers a-fulminatin' from practically the first chords his teenage rock and roll band strums at a talent show. Convinced to make a life of his own in music, Dewey and his soon-to-be wife Edith (Kristen Wiig) leave with stars in their eyes and Pa Cox's (Raymond J. Barry) harsh words nipping at their heels.

Sure enough, Dewey presses a hit record in no time flat, but accompanying his meteoric success are the usual pitfalls: orgies, drugs, and, when he and Edith separate, a fight for custody of the chimp. The primary other woman is Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), a virtuous backup singer who gets Dewey hotter than a pepper sprout. Through the decades she drifts in and out of his life as easily as Dewey changes styles, including a Dylanesque firebrand phase and endless studio tinkerer like Brian Wilson.

WALK HARD writer-director Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow borrow the framework and story from WALK THE LINE. Bits of RAY and conventions from other biopic are included for good measure. Mostly, though, it's a scene for scene answer to the Johnny Cash film down to the way shots are framed and lit.

Direct, feature-length parodying of a single film runs the risk of punchlines being anticipated before the set-ups are made. Once WALK HARD'S corresponding WALK THE LINE scenes are recognized, many jokes can be predicted with ease. Sometimes it is funnier to foresee what's coming, but when the level fails to rise above the kinds of wisecracks a rowdy audience might sling at the screen, the humor needs to be freshened. (This goes double for the extensive wordplay riffing on Dewey's surname.)

The film is more assured when it makes mincemeat of tried and true biopic clich├ęs. WALK HARD makes a mockery of actors unconvincingly playing a wide range of character ages, the overnight fame ascension montage (done here in an afternoon), and heavy-handed views of the past through the eyes of the present, often the most cringeworthy moments in period films. (Think of the confident professions of skepticism about something then unproven or unaccepted but now well-known or commonplace).

Reilly is game for anything Kasdan and Apatow throw at him. He deserves points for keeping a straight face in a two-shot close-up the likes of which won't be found in any other Hollywood films. Reilly also proves himself versatile as a singer, equally at ease with a ballad suited for Roy Orbison, upbeat rockabilly in the vein of Cash and Elvis, and a cryptic, singsongy Dylan tune.

What he lacks is a steady comedic partner. In WALK THE LINE June Carter and the romance were front and center with The Man in Black, but WALK HARD, focused more on stringing sketches than building narrative, underutilizes its potential lead actress. Fischer is called upon to do no more than look foxy as Darlene. Even her funniest scene, the subtlety-free, double entendre-dripping "Let's Duet", finds the actress lip-syncing.

Without question the film's highlights are the credible imitations of pop music spanning at least three decades. For all of the care and creativity put into WALK HARD'S original songs, the rest of the film feels less inspired and maybe a little lazy.

Grade: C

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