This has been the year of the high-concept music movie. The last quarter of 2007 alone gave us a mixed bag of Ian Curtis' photogenic emotional crash (Anton Corbijn's Control), Kurt Cobain's audio musings over visuals of the Northwest (A.J. Schnack's About a Son), and an overblown bit of Bob Dylan eye candy (Todd Haynes' I'm Not There). With creative film direction as the theme, we learned how industry pressure, drug addiction, and life on the road can cause legendary icons to snap. But until now we've yet to glean what it's like for a young musician to accidentally cut his older brother in half. With a machete. After an innocent afternoon of playing chicken with farm equipment. We've never known just how numb a singer can become to the sight of his roadie's shriveled wang. And we've yet to witness an entertainer berate his chimp for never taking his side in arguments. But that's the beauty of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, an absurd comedy that brings levity to the music biopic with these ridiculous episodes. The film's timing — comic and otherwise — couldn't be better.
Walk Hard pairs producer and co-writer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) with the deadpan style of actor John C. Reilly (brilliant in Boogie Nights), a partnership with results funnier than all those hits combined. Directed by Jake Kasdan, the film exploits every biopic cliché. There's the mean old dad, the kid's unbelievably lucky break, and the performer's remarkably quick addiction to the hard stuff. The singer's haggard wife nags him until he falls into the arms of another woman — the same gal who will, of course, help him find God and get off the booger sugar.
The film also magnifies such rock-star indulgences as breeding like rabbits (Cox's 22 kids and 14 stepkids) and adopting wild animals as house pets (shades of Michael Jackson's monkey madness there). But what separates these strokes of wit from lesser comedies is how many subjects the movie parodies. In between spoofing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Ray Charles in Ray, Brian Wilson, Mac Davis, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison, and the Beatles (involving a hilarious acid trip with John/Paul Rudd, Paul/Jack Black, and Ringo/Jason Schwartzman), the film playfully mocks both stereotypes and current stars. The Jewish record-label financiers have names like Dreidel L'Chai'm and Mazeltov, while the White Stripes' Jack White is hilarious as a wasted, karate-chopping Elvis.
You want morality lessons? Dewey learns all of the music-related ones, in rapid succession, making you realize that no matter how close a director gets to an entertainer's story, often there's a familiar arc of awakening. The deeper joke there is that in most straight biopics, the corresponding dialogue has zero subtext. Foreshadowing is a blunt instrument. Here most of Dewey's dumb decisions involve very obvious setups — his older brother offering that "absolutely nothing's going to happen to me today" just before getting halved, or SNL alum Tim Meadows repeatedly conning Dewey into taking drugs with his backward antidrug spiels.
The nagging flaw of the film, though, is the repeated dick-joke takeoffs of Dewey's last name. Nowhere was this dead horse begging louder to be buried than during John C. Reilly's publicity tour following screenings of the film last week. Before Reilly took the stage (with backing band the Hard Walkers) at the Great American Music Hall to perform the soundtrack in character, the crowd chanted variations on "We want Cox." Reilly joked about how much San Francisco "loves Cox." It didn't take long for the film's nuances to flatten out into a single punchline as predictable as the movie's spoofs. Even the new holiday number ("I'd like to be home for Christmas ... but the people want Cox") was a cringer. Reilly's funniest joke had nothing to do with his penis: He pulled off a scarf and asked the audience, "Hey, do you like memorabilia?" before holding it back and teasing, "Well, suffer!" He later threw the scarf out to the crowd.
Luckily for Walk Hard's rep, though, the live gig was a one-time deal, and the anatomical wordplay has a (relatively) lesser role on screen. Of course, the film gags still get pretty lowbrow. But this comedy is primarily a clever reference to a whole gamut of popular music — and popular movie — history, none of which involves Richard Gere as Bob Dylan galloping around on a horse. Dewey's four-legged playmate is a way cooler giraffe. Take that, Todd Haynes.