Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
John C. Reilly is one funny looking guy. Because of this, I’ve always thought that one of the best casting decisions ever was to put him opposite the good looking, incredibly buff Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. The best part about his Nights character was that he didn’t know that he was homely; he actually thought that he was as good looking as Wahlberg. He played that part with honest intensity and sincerity, and it paid off by giving us the funniest character in the movie. It’s this skill – finding humor through serious intention – that allows Reilly to pull off one of the best performances of the year in the wacky but razor sharp comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Just like Leslie Neilsen in the Naked Gun films, Reilly must play his character totally straight in order for the film to work. Reilly is so good as the title character that if in an alternate universe Walk Hard was a straightforward dramatic biopic, his performance would still be brilliant. Luckily the film is a great spoof of the many musical biopics that we’ve seen over the last few decades, from Coal Miner’s Daughter to Walk the Line.
When Dewey Cox was a young boy he accidentally cut his brother in half with a machete. In case the severity of the accident is in doubt, the doctor tells his mother and father, “It’s one of the more serious cases of a person being cut in half.” Needless to say the boy succumbs from his injuries, but before he dies he tells Dewey that he can be successful enough for the both of them. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a young boy who’s just killed his brother, but Dewey seems up to the task, especially since he seems to have an uncanny knack for the blues. His father however, whom the film refers to only as Pa Cox (the priceless Raymond J. Barry) believes that “the wrong son was killed” and he’ll say that about fifty times throughout the film. Ma Cox (Margo Martindale) is more supportive and wishes Dewey well as he heads out into the cold, cruel world at age 14 (even though he looks more like 40).
Once Dewey leaves home he runs into many problems that we’d expect a young musician to have. In fact, he runs into every problem that the subjects of musical biopics ever have. You know the rundown by now; there are the hordes of women that will test his loyalty to his wife Edith (Kristin Wiig), the temptation from drugs that his drummer Sam (Tim Meadows) uses on a daily basis, and the rifts between him and his band mates Theo (Chris Parnell) and Dave (Matt Besser). In fact I don’t ever think I’ve seen a spoof that so thoroughly covers every single cliché possible in a genre like this film does. Director Jake Kasden, along with his co-writer (the extremely prolific Judd Apatow), must be huge fans of the musical biopic to be able to so successfully target and skewer these moments.
When Dewey needs to come up with a hit song he just happens to stumble upon a couple of words that make a magical light bulb go on in his head. Walk Hard becomes an instant hit, as we see the song rocket up in the charts and hit number one. The song, like all of the others writer by Kasden and Apatow, work as humorous rip-offs of real songs that we’ve heard in the past yet are also pretty darn catchy tunes in their own right (think A Mighty Wind). It doesn’t take long before Dewey loses control and gets involved in the de rigeur orgies and heavy drug use. “You don’t wanna try this stuff”, his drummer tells him regarding marijuana, “It isn’t addictive, and it’s really cheap.” Of course Dewey can’t resist. He also can’t resist getting married to another woman, Darlene (Jenna Fischer) before getting a divorce from his first wife. “Isn’t that legal for famous people?” he asks. As the film speeds through several decades Dewey not only gets addicted to the drug of choice, but to the issues of the times as well. In the 60s he takes up the fight for “midgets’ rights” and he even travels to Mecca where he encounters the Beatles. Let’s just say that I’ll never think of Paul McCartney and John Lennon the same way after seeing the way they are played by Jack Black and Paul Rudd.
Walk Hard has no limits when it comes to its brand of humor, and that’s important. I mean, if you’re going to spoof something you might as well go as far as possible, good taste be damned. In this regard the film takes a few pages from the Farrelly Brothers’ playbook, especially when it comes to their depiction of the “Jews that control the music business”, as one character tells Dewey. It may be a crass statement, but it’s absolutely inspired comedy when we discover that those aforementioned Jews are Hasidic, are named L’Chai’m and Mazeltov, and are played by Harold Ramis and Phil Rosenthal. In fact nothing is sacred in Walk Hard, even Elvis and Buddy Holly are skewered without mercy. Watch for who is playing Buddy Holly for even bigger laughs.
I’ve mentioned the songs and clichés, but what really makes Walk Hard an unforgettable comedy are the performances by the all-star cast, including Saturday Night Live alumni, members of Christopher Guest’s ensemble and even some Broadway veterans. Reilly deserves an Oscar nod for this role as his Dewey is a rare find, a character in an off-the-wall comedy that is actually memorable. In Reilly’s hands Dewey is a flesh and blood creation; we actually give a damn about the dope. One of the many masterstrokes of the film is to combine comedy sketch actors with proven dramatic actors and the result is a film that from beginning to end is able to have its cake and eat it too.