WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
As if comedy wunderkind Judd Apatow wasn't satisfied with delivering the one-two punch of this year's Knocked Up and Superbad – he had to take one last below the belt shot while we were falling to the mat in fits of laughter. Walk Hard is not only one of the funniest films of the year, but it proves that while there is a bit of an Apatowian 'formula' (primarily derived from his reuse of key character actors) he can still bring a different flavor to each of his works, and can still wet pants without losing the heart of the story.
Granted, he doesn't work in a vacuum, and Superbad was really the brainchild of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Judd's 'hot' status may overshadow the fact that this film was co-written and directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence, and director of the underlooked, quirky Zero Effect). Walk Hard is the result of a phone-based writing jam session between Apatow and Kasdan, who were both interested in lampooning the recent trend of uber-serious biopics about troubled musicians.
Of course the fictitious Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly, finally getting some primary billing!) is primarily a spin on Johnny Cash and his life as portrayed in the film Walk The Line, but there are also numerous elements evocative of Taylor Hackford's Ray. Other famous musicians are drawn into this parodical fold, including Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison (whose style Reilly seems to prefer invoking vocally), Brian Wilson and The Beatles. Even the poster art (of a clueless, shirtless Dewey staring dimly at the camera) riffs on a classic portrait of Doors frontman Jim Morrison.
Walk Hard is more in tune with the absurd humor present in Apatow's Will Ferrell vehicles Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and this script could easily have been written with him in mind. However, the choice to use the ubiquitous supporting actor Reilly (who tends to find himself cuckolded in films) as a leading man was an inspired one. Especially considering the fact that his weathered visage lends a ton of humor to the concept of him being a teenager throughout the early portions of the film. It's a fun twist on the image of a young Johnny Cash, turned craggy at an early age due to an overdose of human suffering.
As in both Ray and Walk the Line, the death of a brother is at the nexus of this trauma. As the adverts have already spilled, the young Dewey accidentally hews his more talented brother Nate in twain during a machete fight - which somehow causes a reactionary loss of his sense of smell. (Later, Jonah Hill randomly appears as the foul-mouthed ghost of Nate, goading a troubled Dewey by asserting that he would be President by now if he hadn't been chopped in half.) The scene follows a hilarious montage where the two kids toss rattlesnakes and play 'chicken' with a horse and a tractor. Nate's death leaves a stain on the Cox household, and Raymond J. Barry does a great job emulating and exaggerating Robert Patrick's anger-fuelled Ray Cash in Walk the Line – here he continually skulks around the house complaining loudly that “The wrong kid died”.
Dewey's momma (Margo Martindale) is still protective of her little boy, but following a hit performance at his high school talent show he decides to leave the family behind and head out for his shot at the big time. He also begins his own family with his new 12 year old girlfriend Edith (Kristen Wiig, showing much more range here than she did in Knocked Up). Her continued failure to support her husband's dreams (“I believe in you… I just know you're gonna fail”) merits plenty of chuckles, as does the fact that she keeps producing new infants in every other scene despite the fact that she hasn't even exited her teens yet.
Dewey's big break comes when he's allowed to fill in for an injured musician at a black nightclub, where people come to “dance erotically”. These raunchy dance moves are tasteless and hilarious, and prove that Apatow isn't going to dial down his tonier instincts even for a potentially more mainstream film. Cox sings the offensive (Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Man, but his talent overcomes the audience's furor at a white man imitating a black soul singer.
A trio of Hasidic record executives (Harold Ramis, Phil Rosenthal and Martin Starr) in the audience arranges a recording session that apes the Sam Phillips scene from Walk the Line, and here we meet the men who comprise Dewey's band. Upright Citizens Brigade member Matt Besser plays the guitarist, whose eventual wife is routinely usurped by Cox for sexual encounters. SNL alum Chris Parnell plays the ever loyal bassist Theo, and Tim Meadows almost steals the show as the drug-addled drummer Sam.
Following an on-tour encounter with a diminutive Buddy Holly (Frankie Muniz) and a violent Elvis (Jack White), Cox steps into the bathroom to collect himself. This is where he encounters the maddening world of drugs, and in a parody of a Fathead Newman encounter from Ray, Meadows hilariously attempts swaying Cox from joining in (“You don't want none of this!”) by assuring him that marijuana won't give hangovers, won't be addictive, makes sex better and is incredibly cheap. This gag is repeated with various substances throughout the film, and it never gets old.
Drugs aren't Dewey's only problem (although cocaine does help him create punk rock well before its time), for infidelity quickly follows during a wild, chemically charged sexual bacchanal. This is the first instance of the film's penchant for full frontal male nudity, so be prepared to either be offended or laugh yourself silly. The ugly face of bigamy also enters the picture when Dewey falls for his horny yet prudish singer Darlene (a great spin on June Carter Cash played perfectly by The Office's Jenna Fischer). In the beginning they express their unrequited lust through songs like Let's Duet with lyrics such as “In my dreams you're blowing me…. Some kisses”.
In the fashion of a typical self-centered musician, Dewey can care less about the numerous children he's sired (though this does return to bite him in amusing fashion later in the film), but is enraged at the thought of his first wife walking off with his pet monkey. Unfortunately, life with Darlene proves to be just as difficult when his drug-fueled behavior continues to alienate her. In one insanely funny scene, he goes on a naked PCP tear throughout city streets, tossing cars through the air with ease. His repeated destructive behavior also oddly centers around the demolition of wall-mounted sinks.
As the years roll on, Dewey tries to adapt with the times, becoming a Dylanesque activist for the rights of midgets in the 60s. He also has a great encounter with the Beatles in India, and while Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman are great as McCartney, Harrison and Starr respectively, it was Paul Rudd's take on John Lennon that cracked me up the most. In line with the absurdly self-aware nature of the film's characters, they also all refer to one another with the addendum “… of the Beatles”.
The Fab Four introduce Dewey to the wonders of acid, which eventually fuels his desire to record a masterpiece that will sum up the meaning of his entire life. The sprawling studio session this leads to (impossibly populated with a symphony, aboriginal tribesmen, didgeridoo blowers etc.) is a great Brian Wilsonesque mess that recalls the most self-indulgent periods of rock music.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of this production is that after All You Need Is Cash and This Is Spinal Tap, everyone thinks that music parodies have to be in the form of a mock documentary. In Walk Hard Apatow and Kasdan not only get to laugh at the repetitive “Behind The Music” cliché of a self-absorbed musician who ruins his life before redeeming it, they also get to tear into the biopic genre as a whole. Stick around for the end credits, which again remind you that you've been watching a reenactment of a ‘real' man's life.
Of course as the other great music comedies have proven, all the witty writing in the world can't save the day if the tunes don't work. Here, a collaboration between Dan Bern, Marshall Crenshaw, Michael Andrews, Mike Viola and many others creates a genre-spanning mixture of fantastic songs that smartly toe the line between deadpan seriousness and utter absurdity. As Jack Black has proved in Tenacious D, the comedy works that much better if the music is genuinely good. Here's hoping the Walk Hard soundtrack becomes a 'must have' sensation like the O Brother Where Art Thou? CD!
There are also plenty of real musicians in the film proper, from Eddie Vedder to Lyle Lovett to The Temptations. Perhaps because they of all people get the joke the most, and understand that these two wise-ass writers are mixing their pisstaking with equal doses of reverence. Walk Hard is a smashing success, and should generate just as much random quoting as the nonsensical humor found in films like Anchorman (“I love lamp!”). I already look forward to catching it a second time. Walk if you must to the ticket counter, but do walk hard!