Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (review)

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Sweet Snarky Music

It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever, a great rock philosopher once noted, and if you wanna walk that line, you gotta walk hard and walk strong and walk straight and walk, um, clever. Yeah, that’s it.
Well, no actually, you don’t wanna walk straight. You wanna stumble more onto the clever side of the line than the stupid side — in fact, you wanna walk entirely and purposefully on the clever side, if you can manage it. I was terribly afraid that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a sendup of music biopics, wouldn’t manage it, for it comes partly from producer and cowriter Judd Apatow, who has been responsible for some of the most juvenile, most obvious, most predictable and banal attempts at comedy of late: Knocked Up, Superbad, The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Maybe Apatow just needed to get away from sex comedies. Maybe he needed to team up with Jake Kasdan — his cowriter and director here — sooner.

Kasdan’s movies have been much smaller but much smarter than Apatow’s: the sweet, snarky tweaking of the television industry in The TV Set, from earlier this year; 1998’s Zero Effect, an off-kilter noir mystery featuring a modern incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. And it’s clear that Kasdan’s sensibilities dominate in Walk Hard, tempering Apatow’s teenage-boy giddiness at getting to goof on such juiciness as illegal drugs and illicit sex and woo-hoo! rock and roll, dude! with a skewering eye that never lets the movie wallow in the base behavior we expect from our rock gods. Instead, it looks awry and with a critical moue at how we celebrate that bad behavior, as well as how we approach pop culture on the whole.

John C. Reilly — cutting loose like we haven’t quite seen him do before, though his performance in the NASCAR sendup Talladega Nights comes close — is Dewey Cox, contemporary of Elvis and Buddy Holly, as influential to rock ’n’ roll as the Beatles. We’re familiar with the sad, ironic tale, how Dewey overcame early adversity (family tragedy; a debilitating handicap) to triumph as a world-famous singer and performer (and husband three times over, and father to seemingly countless offspring) before booze and drugs and all that exhausting sex took him down. And then there came his triumphant comeback…

Reilly (A Prairie Home Companion, Dark Water) does all his own singing, by the way — the tunes are terrific, actually, though the lyrics are snarky — and he sounds like Roy Orbison, looks like Bob Dylan, and acts like a brilliant madman. And if Walk Hard were nothing but a comic tour de force from one of the most underappreciated actors working today, that would be enough. But there’s a lot more going on. The flick is pulling the legs of flicks including Coal Miner’s Daughter, Ray, and a whole lotta Walk the Line (in fact, I’d venture to guess that the more you adore the deadpan solemnity of Line, the more you’ll get out of this impaling of it). But it isn’t merely aping their clichés and tossing in a fart joke or three: this is a razor-sharp dissection of the new archetype of modern mythology — the rock star — and how we interact with him on a societal level… like making worshipful biographical movies about him. It’s deftly cheeky and bursting with a smart appreciation of the entirety of the pop culture of the last half century, but more, too: it’s about us, and what we expect from our heroes, and what we expect from the stories we hear about them.

Which means, too, that the high markers of each of the decades in pop culture from the 50s through to today get a workout: from the iconic hairdos to the changing expressions of fame as mass entertainment evolves (Dewey gets his own variety show in the 70s!). And how Dewey’s real-life compatriots have come to be mere representations of themselves in the public consciousness gets some play too, most notably in what might be the film’s single funniest, can’t-stop-rolling-on-the-floor-laughing scene, when Dewey travels to India to drop acid with the Beatles, who are played by a cadre of today’s most amusing alt-comedy names. I won’t spoil the moment by revealing who plays whom, but the casting is brilliant. Weird, but brilliant.

So put Walk Hard down as one of the great music satires ever made. Well, sure, there’s pretty much only This Is Spinal Tap in that category, but now there’s this one, too, and it is more than worthy to snort some coke backstage with that classic. And I mean that in a metaphoric, archetypal way, of course.

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Laurie D. T. Mann
Fri, Dec 21, 2007 3:25pm

On the whole, I think this is a good satire, that borders on great at time. The stuff with the Beatles was a complete hoot. But, I thought it was off to a somewhat rocky start (while Nate “had to die,” and it had to be Dewey’s “fault,” I don’t think that segment worked so well). Also, some of the sex jokes were a bit…ahhh…too graphic.

On the other hand, the double-entendre songs were terrific.

Laurie D. T. Mann
Fri, Dec 21, 2007 3:28pm

And I’ve had a long and almost irrational dislike of Jason Schwartzman (especially in I (Heart) Huckabees), but he was terrific as Ringo Starr.

Fri, Dec 21, 2007 4:53pm

Oh, Laurie, that one sex joke you’re referring to… it’s so perfectly shocking for how it points out how used to *other* similar sex jokes we’ve gotten.

Wed, Dec 26, 2007 8:13pm

If we’re talking music satires, you should really put A Mighty Wind in that category, especially considering how much it shares with Tap.

Wed, Dec 26, 2007 8:28pm

Yes, you’re right, Nicole, and the Rutles mockumentary too.

Fri, Jan 04, 2008 4:16am

I got some hearty laughs out of it! After the bar being lowered beneath the Earth’s crust by the appallingly bad “Scary Movie” series, it’s nice to see a SMART spoof movie for a change.

This goes on my list as one of the better “middle brow” comedies of the decade!

Tue, Jan 08, 2008 3:09pm

I saw the movie on Christmas Day and enjoyed it only mildly. The first half I found uproarious; the second half was much less so. Interestingly, the point at which it went south for me was the acid trip, which Marilyn found roll-on-the-floor funny. One could quite literally FEEL the comedic joy evaporate from the room during that sequence. It almost felt like Apatow’s much-maligned lower sensibilities won the day during that sequence.

Overall, I enjoyed the main themes until they hammered them into me– do we really need to delve into the intimate aspects of every decade of the singer’s life? How many times can we milk Tim Meadows saying “Dewey, you don’t want none of this shit!” Of course, perhaps that was a meta-joke: a painfully over-long movie about a musician. If it was, it fell flat for me.

Tue, Jan 08, 2008 3:13pm

My fingers refused to obey my brain: sorry.

Her name is MaryAnn, NOT Marilyn.

Tue, Jan 08, 2008 4:53pm

How many times can we milk Tim Meadows saying “Dewey, you don’t want none of this shit!”

But it wasn’t milked! Milking a joke means the same joke gets repeated over and over. This joke evolved with each iteration, and the entirety of it becomes a commentary on the idiotic attitudes of the culture at large, in which the relative goodness or badness of a drug has nothing to do with its actual properties or dangers (or lack thereof).

Wed, Jan 09, 2008 1:09pm

Perhaps you’re right. I’ll be honest, I don’t know enough about the specific properties (good or bad) of each of the (I believe I counted 5) drugs referenced in these sequences. So, if there is underlying humor there, I sure missed it for that reason.

I was always led to believe, however, that there is a comedic maxim that “comedy always comes in threes”. Now, of course all comedy rules exist merely for the sake of being broken, but being broken correctly. I won’t cling to this point of view dogmatically for the above reasons not least of all, but I felt like whatever good might have been gleaned from the first two or three iterations of the joke lost its punch after the fourth and fith iterations.

BTW, I found the initial joke about pot funny for the reasons you described, so I at least get the force of the purpose behind the joke.