Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Review - Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk the Line was released in 2005, the similarities between it and the previous year's Ray were undeniable. The films covered different topics – Johnny Cash and Ray Charles respectively – but structurally and thematically they were almost identical. Each picture presented a man haunted by childhood trauma, then it progressed through early struggles, before the central figure finally hit the big time, rubbing shoulders with the stars, and entering a period of substance abuse and womanising. Just at the point where it looked like our hero was about to throw it all away, both films finally ended on a note of redemption, re-establishing their subject's status as a musical legend. Of the pair, Walk the Line was far superior – thanks to sharper filmmaking and a romantic angle that gave it an emotional through line – but even that enjoyable picture delivered enough of the standard biopic clichés to make it a ripe target for spoofing.

Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story, an entertainingly daft entry from the Judd Apatow stable which acts as a send-up of those two pictures in particular, and of the musical biopic genre in general. Its subject, Dewey Cox, is a man whose life seems to adhere to tick every one of the biopic clichés, beginning with a childhood incident in which 6 year-old Dewy accidently killed his brother with a machete ("I'm cut in half pretty bad" Nate observes from the ground, his legs standing next to him). That tragedy drives a wedge between Dewey and his father (Raymond J Barry) who never misses an opportunity to remind his son that "the wrong kid died", and it leaves Dewey with no sense of smell. When 14 year-old Dewey (now played by John C Reilly) scandalises the local community with a song about holding hands, he decides to take off with his 12 year-old girlfriend (Kristen Wiig) to follow his dreams in the big city. Of course, Dewey eventually succumbs to the pressures of fame, cheating on his comically fertile wife with sexy backing singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer, playing a tease to perfection), and he sinks ever deeper into a maelstrom of drugs and soulless sex, hitting rock bottom before, naturally, finding the strength to pull it all back together for one last show.

Films of this nature are a tricky beast to get right, and too often they settle for the lazy option of merely referencing other pictures in order to win some laughter via recognition. Just take a look at any of the atrocious
Epic Movie/Scary Movie/Date Movie pictures which have littered the multiplexes like so many rotting corpses over the past few years for evidence of this type of comedy at its most pathetic level. Instead, Walk Hard manages to find a comfortable balance between spoofing and storytelling. The screenplay, co-written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, ensures Dewey's rise and fall matches the standard narrative arc for this type of film, with the specific allusions to individual films offset by bursts of unexpected, surreal humour and absurd visual gags. The picture develops a series of funny running gags during the course of the film, such as Dewey's escalating interest in drugs ("Get outta here, Dewy! You don't want any part of this shit") or his habit of tearing sinks from the walls whenever he hits an emotional low; and as it progresses through the musical landscape of the 50's, 60's and 70's, Kasdan and Apatow maintain an impressively high laugh ratio.

The filmmakers have also paid close attention to the fine detail of the eras they're exploring, with the visual style and the costume design of every stage in Dewey's journey feeling just right, and the film takes its central character through a remarkable array of transformations. During the sixties he emerges as a Dylan-like protest singer, and he later suffers a Brian Wilson-style descent into madness, as he locks himself in a studio and obsesses over an elaborate concept album ("I want 50,000 didgeridoos!"). Perhaps the most vital thing the filmmakers have got right, though, is the quality of music that Dewey performs during the course of the movie. The songs have plenty of silly lyrics and sly innuendos ("In my dreams you're blowing me.... kisses"), but they're also uniformly catchy and perfectly performed, and as in
This is Spinal Tap (the gold standard for spoof music movies), the hint of authenticity which these songs possess is vital for our ability to engage with this character and his story.

The most common failing of parody films is their tendency to run out of steam before the climax, and that's something
Walk Hard unfortunately falls prey to, with the final third of the picture dragging a little in comparisons to what's gone before, and the film lacks a really strong climax. Still, it's easy to forgive those flaws in the face of the fun Walk Hard offers. There's something amusing going on in almost every scene, and a particularly inspired sequence featuring The Beatles (Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman) is one of the comic highlights of the year. Ultimately, though, the best reason to see Walk Hard is to watch John C Reilly in the lead role. This is a long overdue chance for one of cinema's best supporting actors to carry a major film, and he responds with a multi-faceted and hugely appealing turn which keeps the picture's comedy grounded in a strong central character. Dewey Cox is a role which requires Reilly to sing, dance, get high, run through the streets in his underpants, and keep a straight face while talking to an exposed penis. He manages to do all of this and more with great aplomb and deadpan comic timing, and that's the real secret of Walk Hard's success.