Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

In one of a few confessions of his undying love for the movie Dodgeball (a guilty pleasure that he and I both share), Anthony Lane once wrote that you can gauge the effectiveness of parody based on whether or not you can continue to take its target seriously. Just as Dodgeball annihilated the underdog sports movie (try watching The Karate Kid with a straight face again, just try), so too Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story lands a few body blows on the music biopic. Directed by Jake Kasdan with almost too much of a professional sheen, with a script by Kasdan and Judd Apatow that vacillates between broad, obvious gags and jokes so subtle they only hit you on the rebound, if at all, Walk Hard isn't a great comedy. Still I loved the movie, maybe because its satire ultimately feels as affectionate toward its targets as I do. (No matter that this exuberant spoof bombed at the box-office last January and received tepid reviews; a long healthy life as a DVD cult hit is assured.) Moreover, it's anchored by a comic tour-de-force from John C. Reilly, who plays Cox from age 14 to 71, and sings a number of songs that showcase his dazzling range. It was obvious, from his memorable "Mr. Cellophane" number in Chicago, that Reilly had good singing chops; but who guessed he could mimic Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan with such devastating accuracy?

The central premise of Walk Hard is that Dewey Cox becomes a singing sensation and stays at the top over several decades by adapting (or, less charitably, plagiarizing) whatever is trendy at the moment. Yet it's never done cynically, and mimicry is really too shallow a description for what Reilly accomplishes. Early in the film, we see him mopping floors at an all-black nightclub, where the customers come to "dance erotically." While an R&B performer (the always wonderful Craig Robinson, in too brief a part) sings and spins, we see Cox off-stage excitedly mirroring the moves. Soon after, when the headliner gets injured, the hopelessly whitebread Cox seizes his big chance and leads a hot number called "You've Got To Love Your Negro Man." The patrons, initially angered, eventually succumb to the heat of the performance. (It may be an imitation, but it's an intensely heartfelt one.) This attracts the attention of powerful talent scouts -- who are, naturally, Hasidic Jews (led by an unrecognizable Harold Ramis) -- leading to a hilarious send-up of the scene in Walk the Line where Johnny Cash incurs the wrath of the recording studio producer. Here, the producer (played by Christopher Guest alum John Michael Higgins), informs Cox, following an ill-advised hillbilly version of "That's Amore!", that his musical career is over -- unless he can sing something that he's never sung before, with backup musicians he's never met before, something so personal that it will change his life forever, right there, on the spot. It is there that the title song, "Walk Hard," is created, and rockets up the charts.

Kasdan and Apatow have a lot of fun with this set-up, and the first half of the movie moves briskly through the cliches it mocks. In addition to The Songs That Derive Directly From Life, there is also The Unsupportive Wife (Kristin Wiig), whose mantra is "You're never gonna make it!" even long after he already has, The Dark Period Of Drug Abuse, where Cox is abetted by his drummer Sam (a scene-stealing Tim Meadows) and The Childhood Trauma That Haunts Him Still. As a boy, Dewey accidentally kills his ostensibly more talented older brother in a machete fight (of course!), which forms a rift between him and his aggrieved father. (I wish Robert Patrick, who played this tiresome archetype in Walk the Line, had been cast here rather than Raymond J. Barry, who doesn't quite hit the right note.) Hope comes in the form of Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), a June Carter Cash clone who throws herself onto Dewey and then slaps him for coming on too strong. While I'm not convinced Fischer is leading lady material, she's light on her feet here and deftly conveys her character's mixed signals to the man who falls in love with her (having had plenty of practice on The Office).

This being a Judd Apatow joint (he also served as producer), Walk Hard eventually abandons its raunchy high spirits and becomes an ode to the meaning of family. I don't dismiss this as saccharine hypocrisy the way some critics do. It's clearly an important theme to Apatow, who previously addressed it in The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and who here adds the conflict between family and work (or, more specifically, art) that is perhaps a regular source of tension in his own life. Narratively, some of the fun goes out of the movie. Yet Reilly holds it together, with a climactic number that is as wittily self-aware as everything that comes before, while still managing to be moving.

Despite the character's dimwittedness and failings, Reilly makes Dewey Cox a grand synthesis of the greatest performers of country, pop and rock and roll. (I highly recommend checking out the extended versions of the songs on the DVD's special features -- especially the Dylanesque "Royal Jelly," which is flabbergastingly brilliant.) In his more serious films, Reilly has always had a lovable mug that can nicely offset the heavy weather of the scenes. How wonderfully ironic that it's taken his recent forays into comedy to bring new depths and shadings to the surface.

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