Certainly, choosing "Walk the Line" as a title is in keeping with Mangold's dryly literal and obvious interpretation of Johnny Cash's tale, already recounted in two autobiographies and myriad other books and box-set histories; the filmmaker all but gives us the day-to-day blow-by-blows of Cash's early years, from rising Sun to falling star almost done in by amphetamines. Ring of Fire would have been appropriate, too -- it was written by June and made legendary by John well before theirs was a legal relationship -- but come to think of it, it would have promised a far more incendiary film than the cold cuts Mangold offers on a silver platter. It's just as well, then; at least it wasn't called Cry, Cry, Cry.
Or, for that matter, Ray, the film against which it will be compared and contrasted well into the awards season. In so many ways, they're the same movie -- tales about flawed geniuses who belong on rock 'n' roll's Mount Rushmore, where they could find plenty of time to swap stories of marital infidelities and drug use. They're also told by fans, who boast in press kits of sitting at the feet of gods who shared stories of mere mortals doing bad things while making great music. Ray and Walk the Line contain performances by actors struggling not to offer rote impressions of men who are easily parodied. And both were directed by lightweights not in the league of their subject matter -- unless one considers Mangold's Kate & Leopold or Identity significant works.
Ray succeeded solely because of its star; Jamie Foxx was Ray Charles, and it was his riveting, star-making performance that allowed Taylor Hackford's dull hagiography to transcend the standard rise-and-fall-and-rise biopic. Walk the Line does not fare as well, because as much as Joaquin Phoenix looks like Cash from a distance (and through squinted eyes), he comes off like a child trying to walk in big-boy boots. It's one thing to try to find the lesser man obscured by enormous myth, but another thing altogether to turn a giant into a whiny, petulant pipsqueak with daddy issues.
Mangold, like Hackford, suffers the fatal flaw of wanting to explain the artist -- to find out what made him tick, and what made him ticked-off. He begins at the very beginning, in rural Arkansas, and walks the time line -- crawls it, more accurately, stopping to touch every significant date in the man's life. There's little J.R. (Ridge Canipe) sharing a cramped bed with big brother Jack (Lucas Till); Jack was Johnny's hero and best friend, the child who dreamed of becoming a minister. But Jack is sliced almost in half by a table saw the very day Johnny skips off to the fishing hole, which the old man, Ray (Robert Patrick), will never forgive. God, Ray tells Johnny, took the wrong son. (Ray Charles likewise watched his little brother die; it was, Ray informed us, one of the last things he saw.)
Then there's the quick trip to Germany, where Johnny wooed his girl Vivien (Ginnifer Goodwin) long-distance and began writing songs; then it's off to Sun Records, where Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) is recording Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton, not a bad facsimile) and rebuffing Johnny, who Sam says can't sing country; then it's off to the road, Elvis and Johnny and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) raising hell on a bill with Johnny's slice o' heaven, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Then there's the cheatin', the druggin', the singin', the sinnin' -- lather, rinse, repeat till it's the late 1960s, Johnny's touring with June and playing Folsom Prison, and still tryin' to make his papa proud. And every time something of significance happens, there's the soundtrack cuing another Cash classic, as if to suggest, as all lay biopics do, that moments write the songs, not songwriters.
The film offers a phony version of history, suggesting that once Cash and Carter were married in 1968, shortly after his Folsom Prison comeback, he was forever clean and sober --hardly. And for all the affection Mangold feels for Cash and Carter, the movie feels oddly dispassionate, more like a lecturer reading from a required text than someone recounting a story that needed to be told. Phoenix simply doesn't have the weight, the presence, the gravitas of Cash; he looks overwhelmed by the role, as though he's struggling to outrun the ghost over his shoulder. (Country singer Mark Collie offered a far more memorable Cash in the 1999 short film I Still Miss Someone, in which he leaked booze, popped pills off the floor, and recounted his tale to a journalist like a perp making a jail-cell confession.) Phoenix never disappears in the role the way Foxx did (or Philip Seymour Hoffman does in Capote, or David Strathairn does in Good Night, and Good Luck), never makes us forget we're watching an acolyte repeat the master's words without embodying their meaning. And it doesn't help that Phoenix and Witherspoon sing the songs themselves, rendering theirs the performances of competent karaoke-club entertainers. Phoenix, especially, is no Val Kilmer. Or, for that matter, Jamie Foxx. Or Johnny Cash.