Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

We critics always complain that character actors, who don't have the good looks of traditional leading men, seldom get to be center-stage in Hollywood films, actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Seth Rogin, and so on.

But it may not be true anymore, judging by Hoffman's Oscar-winning part in “Capote” and his lead roles this year in “The Savages” and “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.” And now it seems to be the turn of Hoffman's peer from their “Boogie Nights” days, John C. Reilly, who's in each and every scene in the musical parody, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” As singer Dewey Cox, Reilly covers every musical style over the past five decades, from Elvis to Roy Orbison to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and beyond.

Parodies and spoofs have always been risky propositions, hit-and-miss enterprises. For one thing, pop culture is so quickly changing that by the time a send-up is made, its jokes and references might no longer be relevant. For another, how do you fill the inevitably dead space between the high points (the good jokes), and the story line; a feature-length film just can't consist of shrewd one-liners and dazzling vignettes.

As co-scripted and directed by Jake Kasdan (Lawrence Kasdan's son who previously helmed “The TV Set”), “Walk Hard” has chosen a relatively safe way, namely to spoof every musical biopic and singer in Hollywood history, from Elvis to Johnny Cash to “The Buddy Holly Story” to “Ray” to “Walk the Line.”

Hollywood's “King of Comedy,” producer-writer-director Judd Apatow (this year alone, “Knocked Up,” “Super Bad”) gets credit as co-writer, and it's reassuring top see along the way about a dozen actors who have appeared in his movies, such as Paul Rudd.

Spanning five decades, the story begins in 1946, in a Mississippi small-town, with two boys engaging in a duel that ends tragically, when Dewey cuts his brother into half. Next scene is set in 1953 in a high-school in Alabama, where Reilly is introduced as 14-year-old Dewey; that he doesn't look 14 is part of the joke. In his most dominant role to date, Reilly plays Dewey from age 14 all the way to senior years to his death.

If you feel that “Walk the Hard” is no more than a pastiche, a series of unevenly inspired sketches, you would be right. In the course of the rise-and-fall saga, every thematic and visual clich of Hollywood's biopics is deconstructed and spoofed. Dewey drinks excessively, does every drug imaginable (depending of the era), and beds every woman who crosses his path.

By and large, though, “Walk Hard” borrows ideas from James Mangold's “Walk the Line.” A good portion of the story is structured as a triangle between Dewey, his wife and mother to his children Edith (Kristen Wiig), and his true love Darlene (Jenna Fischer), a backup singer whose role is clearly a take on June Carter (for which Reese Witherspoon won the 2005 Best Actress Oscar). Their “Let's Duet,” with its down-and-dirty lyrics–“In my dreams you're blowin' mesome kisses”-is one of the film's highlights.

The two women in Dewey's life come from NBC's comedies: Jenna Fischer is from “The Office,” and Kristen Wiig from “Saturday Night Live.” Fischer is particularly good as the initially backup singer, who wins Dewey's heart but will not sleep with him until they are married.

The various cameos are also amusing and diverting, evident in a scene that describes Dewey on LSD trip with the Beatles, played by Paul Rudd as John, Jack Black as Paul, Jason Schwartzman as Ringo, and Justin Long as George.

The parody tunes, written by Van Dyke Parks, Mike Viola and Marshall Crenshaw, propel the narrative forward. Reilly, Kasdan and Apatow have written the title song, as well as “Mama You Got to Love Your Negro Man.” (The producers promise to release these tunes separately on CD, as “Box of Cox”).

The movie is necessarily fragmented in its chronological survey of Dewey's fictional life, from boyhood tragedy to unexpected stardom to drug abuse to decline. Overall, the filmmakers show enough energy, excitement, and humor in the choice of musical material to counter the flat episodes. But not all the bits are funny. In the first reel, there are endless puns inspired by Dewey's last name, and the tribute to the seminal “Yellow Submarine,” with its acid-induced trip, is rather weak.

But there's a large number of effectively executed spoofs: Blacks in a nightclub bursting into spontaneous dance when a white singer lets loose, or Hassidic Jews (Harold Ramis and company), who are depicted as both sympathetic and greedy record executives. I also liked the “warning” about drugs that comes from band member Sam (Tim Meadows); as soon as he tells Dewey, “You don't want to try this,” Dewey is on for the ride.

Reilly, you may recall, appeared in Apatow's “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” in which the stars were Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen. Here, rising to the occasion, Reilly plays the balladeer from teen to senior citizen, generating enough good will to offset the boring scenes and juvenile silliness. Surprisingly, Reilly shows genuine gift in delivering the tunes, and his singing is pleasant. Totally immersed in the role, occasionally he goes overboard: The scene in which he runs out in public in his jock strap is simply awful.

Production values are polished and eye-popping. The costumes, hairdos, and makeup are both accurate and exaggerated, as befit the spoof genre.

For a 96 minutes saga, the film is rich and diverse enough for viewers to root for and select their favorite Reilly impersonation, or the most likeable phase in Dewey Cox's lengthy career. My choice is Dewey's Bob Dylan phase, shot in stylized black-and-white, in which Reilly is at his most convincing and entertaining. (Incidentally, Cate Blanchett was also my favorite Bob Dylan, in his 1960s phase, in Todd Haynes' deconstructive biopic, “I'm Not There”).

For Apatow, “Walk Hard” continues to show the viability of an R-rated comedy, made on a relatively modest budget within the conservative climate of the studio system. As if to justify its rating, “Walk Hard” goes out of its way to look and play rude and hard, resulting in an uneven entertainment, bound to please young audiences, and with some potential to become a midnight flick encouraging repeat viewing.

Cast

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
Ma Cox – Margo Martindale
Theo – Chris Parnell
Dave – Matt Besser

credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with Relativity Media, of a Nominated Films production.
Produced by Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan, Clayton Townsend.
Executive producer, Lew Morton.
Directed by Jake Kasdan.
Screenplay, Judd Apatow, Kasdan.
Camera, Uta Briesewitz.
Editors, Tara Timpone, Steve Welch.
Music, Michael Andrews.
Music supervisors: Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe.
Songs: Dan Bern, Mike Viola, Van Dyke Parks, Marshall Crenshaw, Charlie Wadhams.
Production designer: Jefferson D. Sage.
Art director: Domenic Silvestri.
Set decorator: Claudette Didul.
Costume designer: Debra McGuire.
Sound: Tateum Kohut, Greg Landaker, Bill W. Benton.
Supervising sound editor: Joel Shryack.
Sound designer: Bob Grieve.
Visual effects supervisor: Mark Freund.

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 96 Minutes.