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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

(2007) *** R
96 min. Columbia Pictures.

We Americans loves us some celebrity pain, preferably to a rockin' soundtrack. How else to explain the average citizen's intimate knowledge of who's in and who's out...of rehab, the parental status of the latest Lolita, and the actor/singer/socialite/fill-in-the-blank's current run-in with the law. Lord knows Oscar loves the lurid, when wrapped up in the glossiest biopic money can buy. Hollywood has never looked at the conventions of tragic celebrity as narrative limitations but as promises to the audience: you will see a rise, a fall, and a redemption for your eight the greatest hits!

Beginning with Ray and Walk the Line and spiralling outwards at whim, screenwriter-producer Judd Apatow and screenwriter-director Jake Kasdan skewer the story beats of the musical biopic with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Though the music stars themselves are in for some ribbing, Apatow and Kasdan are primarily after the way writers and directors strip-mine musicians' lives for anguish and uplift. John C. Reilly takes center stage as Cox, giving the spoof goofy star power and an immersive performance of its own to tout around Oscar time. And with an army of industry talent "behind the music," Walk Hard is a lock for a Best Song nomination.

That the picture walks and sometimes crosses the line into the products it parodies is a measure of its zealous thoroughness and also its central pitfall. By scrupulously mocking its forebears, Walk Hard must repeat their every story beat, leaving Cox almost more of a concept than a full-blooded character. Cox's story begins in golden-hued Alabamy farm country, where young Dewey and his brother amusingly bask in their own naivete ("Ain't no terrible tragedies gonna happen today!") just before a life-defining trauma. Left with a boulder on his shoulder and no way to cope with it, Dewey is primed for greatness (he has everything to prove) and emotional disaster in romance, addiction, and social acting-out.

When not pursuing the obvious, Walk Hard is sometimes downright lazy, spitting out unsubtle jokes about "the Jews who control show business" and even a wholesale rip-off the Zucker Brother's body-double sight gag from The Naked Gun 2. But when focused on the hoariest cliches of the genre—like the career-making, spontaneous recording-studio recoup—the movie mercilessly skewers its prey. Given the picture's silliness, many will overlook its sharpest bit of satire. Cox's musical journey naturally begins with the chestnut that the white music star appropriates his musical chops from black rhythm and blues practitioners, but notice how it ends, as well, with Cox being sampled by black hip-hop artists.

That kind of clever dovetailing is the exception rather than the rule in a movie that establishes a few running gags and fearlessly drives each into the ground. The first involves Cox's drummer (Tim Meadows, late of SNL) dramatically warning Dewey off drugs only to entice him more, and the second involves Cox running into major music stars (Frankie Muniz's Buddy Holly, Jack White's Elvis, a comedy-all-star version of the Beatles, and genuine articles like Lyle Lovett and Eddie Vedder) and blankly and repeatedly addressing them by their full names ("Thank you, Elvis Presley") for the slower members of the audience.

If some of the humor becomes a bit tiresome, one at least can't fault the filmmakers for holding back. Cox has a long-suffering wife (Kristin Wiig of Knocked Up) and an "other woman" (Jenna Fischer of The Office), at least 410 other lovers (including his male bassist), 22 kids, 14 stepkids, a giraffe and a chimp. From his Ray-like childhood stirrings to his Buddy Holly-like musical coming out at a sock-hop to his Johnny Cash-like ascent, Cox is every man with a guitar: an amalgam of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mac Davis, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, and Brian Wilson.

What holds it all together is Reilly's all-stops-pulled performance—playing from age 14 to 66—and the first-class musical pastiches (the fully committed star also co-wrote many of his numbers). Veteran writer-performer Marshall Crenshaw penned the terrific Cash-esque title tune (set up by a wicked parody of the cliched lyrical-inspiration scene), Charlie Wadhams co-wrote the Johnny-June-like "Let's Duet" ("In my dreams, you're blowing me...some kisses") and "Guilty as Charged." Outside of Cash territory, the filmmakers went practically to the source for "Black Sheep," a hilarious, Brian Wilson-esque musical carnival penned by his Smile partner Van Dyke Parks.

Though many of Walk Hard's best jokes advertise their self-awareness, Reilly plays it straight. Cox never coalesces into a relatable character, but then neither did "Ray Charles" in Ray. Reilly wins by squeezing every last bit of juice out of the material and, like many of his acting forbears, singing and playing his own music (clear the stage for an inevitable and memorable Oscar-night performance). Forty songs were written and recorded for the film, and Reilly's been half-joking to anyone who will listen that someone should release "a Dewey Cox box" set. Consider my fingers crossed.

BONUS CONCERT REVIEW: In a fit of barnstorming PR, Columbia sent Reilly across the country not only to do select press interviews but also to perform as Dewey Cox. The seven-city "Cox Across America" tour found Dewey Cox and the Hard Walkers playing San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, where Reilly proved his commitment to the role with a wholly in-character performance that was part concert and part performance art.

The private concert, following a promotional screening of the film at the nearby AMC Van Ness, played to an audience of "Dewey Cox Fan Club" members who had scored tickets through the film's website or a local radio station. Dressed like a toreador and swaggering like Elvis, Cox careened on stage, greeted the crowd, and kicked off with "Guilty as Charged," followed by "(I Hate You) Big Daddy", "A Life Without You (Is No Life At All)," and a cover of "Got My Mojo Workin'". For "Let's Duet," Cox warmly welcomed Angela Correa, who provides the singing voice of Darlene Madison in the film.

The film and its music most often conjure up Johnny Cash, but Reilly's in-the-flesh act had as much Elvis to it as anyone else, with sneering, twitching, kicking, hip-swiveling, and scarf tricks. Pulling a red bandanna from his zipper, Cox asked a woman in the audience, "Do you like memorabilia?" After making a move to hand it over, he yanked it back, saying, "Well, suffer!" (growling that he was just kidding, he handed it over). A bit of crotch-flossing later, an eBay-ready scarf went to a laughing recipient. Reilly also had shtick worked out with his roadie, charged with the task of slinging Cox' acoustic guitar over him whenever the star went into a frozen pose of readiness (one failure to do so led Cox to note, "You owe me twenty bucks").

The star also acknowledged the Austin Powers-esque time warp necessary for him to perform in his young form. Thanks to secret time-continuum experiments at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cox explained, "I am here in my 1959 self, but I have knowledge of my whole life." The set-up allowed Cox frequently to reference the film and monologue about his personal history and artistic progression. Referencing his homosexual experimentation with his bassist, Cox said, "I recommend it to every man in this room." His political phase came out in the one-two punch of "Dear Mr. President" and "Midget Man," followed by the hilarious Dylan parody "Royal Jelly" ("Take that, Zimmerman!").

Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" led into the night's highlight, a speedy, comically twitchy cover of J.J. Cale's "Cocaine" ("She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie: cuh-CAINE!"). And acknowledging the season, Cox unveiled the song "Cox for Christmas," with its double entendre workin' overtime ("I'd like to be home for Christmas...but the people want Cox"). The film-primed crowd was eager for such nonsense, having chanted "We want Cox!" and "We love Cox!" all night.

"Here's the song that started it all. And tonight, it's going to end it all, too," Cox announced. And thus, "Walk Hard" batted clean-up, chased by a band intro to the instrumental "Traveling" (the five-piece band included guitarist-songwriter Mike Viola). An encore delivered up Cox's career summation, "Beautiful Ride," and in a brilliant flourish, "(Have You Heard the News) Dewey Cox Died." "As you know from seeing the movie, I had a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol," Cox confessed in introducing the final song. As much as any other number, the closer found Reilly giving 100% percent, maximizing the absurdity of a man in 2007 playing an out-of-time 1959 rockabilly star singing the lament of his own death. Now that's entertainment.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 4/8/2008

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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