Friday, December 21, 2007

"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" -- * * *

Parody is a rather delicate thing that can often just come off as scattershot, lame, and merely re-creating scenes rather than putting any sort of witty spin on them (e.g.: "Date Movie," "Epic Movie," and hell, most of the "Scary Movie" series). Rarely it reaches perfection ("Airplane!"), sometimes minor-classic status ("Top Secret!," both "Hot Shots!" films), and even when they're nothing special, they're occasionally worth a bunch of laughs ("BASEketball," "Mafia!"). "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," takes a stab at the musical biopic genre, specifically "Walk the Line," and for the most part, it's an extremely well-crafted parody that is frequently very, very funny. It's also the latest film to arrive on the must-be-reaching-its-last-legs-sometime-soon-but-still-riding-high Judd Appatow train (Apatow co-wrote the screenplay). Unlike "Superbad" which was about 40 minutes longer than seemed necessary, and "Knocked Up," which was nearly perfect but still felt bloated at 135 minutes, "Walk Hard" runs a brisk 91 minutes and never allows the pacing (or the jokes) to flag.

Directed by Jake Kasdan, "Walk Hard" opens with a concert lackey backstage looking for our titular musician, bemoaning "Guys, I need Cox," the first of many, many "cox" double entendres. After being informed by one of Dewey's band members, "Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life" before each performance, we're flashed back to Dewey as a small boy playing with his concierto-level pianist little brother, Nate. After joyously proclaiming "Ain't nothin' terrible gonna happen today!," the two proceed to whimsically engage in various death-defying acts, last of which is machete-fighting. In the event that will define Dewey's life, he accidentally chops his brother in half. Despite the town doctor's best efforts, Nate dies (the doctor regrettably confesses, "This was a particularly bad case of someone being cut in half"), resulting in Dewey's psychosomatic loss of his sense of smell, and his crotchety father blaming him for the death (about 90% of the character's dialogue is his repeated catchphrase, "The wrong kid died!").

We quickly jump forward in Dewey's life, as he begins his musical career at age 14, prompting a sexual revolution at his high school with his racey, promiscuity-inciting first song, "Take My Hand." After marrying a good woman (Kristin Wiig) at too young an age, who keeps producing babies ("I'm gonna miss some births"), Dewey goes on the road with his band (Matt Besser, Chris Parnell, never-funnier Tim Meadows), beginning a love affair with both drugs and a June Carter-like religious country singer, Darlene Love (Jenna Fischer). As we travel rapidly through the decades, Dewey's career goes through many phases-- at one point, he bemoans "This is a dark fucking period!"-- meets a multitude of iconic musicians and overcomes insurmountable obstacles, all with his trusty monkey by his side.

Meshing extremely nicely with Apatow's cruder streak (the film's R-rating is well-earned but not particularly raunch-driven), "Walk Hard" parodies the genre's conventions with pitch-perfect precision. Dewey has an extremely broad epiphany every time he says something that will evolve into a song title, including "Walk Hard" and "Guilty as Charged." Characters frequently announce their ages (Wiig has a particularly hilarious delivery of "I'm Dewey's 12-year-old girlfriend!") and famous people announce their name multiple times ("We're the Beatles. From Liverpool. The Fab Four. The Beatles"). Also, the continuous dark, drug "period" reaches its gloriously ridiculous apex with Dewey on a PCP-fueled rampage throughout the city, and even the "old age" makeup on display here is very funny, and amusingly fake.

Beyond just coming up with non-sequiturs and incisive parody of the genre, there are also specific, recognizable homages to various musical movements/performers throughout rock history that aficionados will get a greater kick out of than the masses. Though its one of the more obvious ones, the interlude with Dewey aping Bob Dylan (though he offers that maybe Dylan ripped him off) was by far my favorite. Playing the same "Don't Look Back" version of Dylan Cate Blanchett plays in "I'm Not There," Dylan's "finger-point" songs are hilariously ribbed, from the song decrying the plight of little people to one, "Royal Jelly" mocking Dylan's more random, absurdist lyrics ( it includes the phrases "rimjob fairy teapots" and "inside the three-eyed monkey of his toaster oven life").

Where these sort of movies tend to have more misses than hits, I'd say at least 75% of the jokes here strongly hit their mark. There's a very, very funny running gag about Dewey's drug experimentation involving the phrase"You don't want no part of this shit!" that builds and builds. For every showstopping gag-- there's compensatory gratuitous male nudity, and a hysterical stint in a rehab facility whose treatment seems to consist of shouting "We need more blankets!" and "We need fewer blankets!"-- there's about five chortle-inducing throwaway lines. But the film reaches its high point in a bravura sequence involving Dewey meeting Paul McCartney (Jack Black), John Lennon (Paul Rudd) Ringo Starr (Jason Schwartzman) and George Harrison (Justin Long) in India. With wildly exaggerated English accents and forced references to their songs, virtually every line in the scene induces a belly laugh; I've seen the movie twice and I still don't think I've caught all the dialogue. Not every gag works-- a bit involving Elvis (Jack White) falls flat, and a violent sex scene between Dewey and Darlene tries but fails in its outrageousness-- but most of them hit enough to compensate.

Rather than throw-away jokes, the songs strewn throughout "Walk Hard" qualify as no less than excellent; this is what parody is supposed to be. The soundtrack (featuring 30 songs) is made up of songs that are hilarious if you listen closely to the lyrics, but also work remarkably well as actual songs within their respective genres. Of the 30, at least 15 of them are memorably clever, with the best ones being the double-entendre laden "Let's Duet" ("I'm gonna beat off... all my demons") and the protest song "Let Me Hold You (Little Man"), which begins, "All the elevator buttons / So incredibly high/ I stand here today for the midget / Half the size of a regular guy." As an owner of it, I can vouch, this soundtrack is worth a buy.

While maybe not deserving of a Golden Globe nomination, Reilly is hilarious here as Cox, delivering songs as deftly as his idiotic punchlines. Even if the filmmakers are trying a bit too hard to launch him into Will Ferrell territory (at one point, he is running around in his underwear), it's great to see him finally be put center stage in a mainstream Hollywood comedy. While I hope he doesn't stay away completely from drama from now on-- he's too good at it-- I'm glad he has his own showcase here, and playing Cox from ages 14 to 73, he wrings all the possible laughs out of the conceit. The only gripe I have with the cast is that the two hilarious central actress, Fischer and Wiig, are a wee bit underused, as it's strictly a Reilly-centric affair. There are a ton of cameos here, but not of the attention-grabbing big star sort. Instead they're ones that will put smiles on the faces of hardcore comedy fans; some of the very funny people given noteworthy moments here include Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Ed Helms, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Ian Roberts and as record-producing orthodox Jews, Harold Ramis and Martin Starr.

In a season filled with murderous barbers, pregnant teenagers and Taliban-creating Democrats, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" serves as the perfect stupid-clever antidote to Oscar season. In a genre that's been largely occupied by pieces of shit like "Epic Movie," it's nice to get a reminder what parody has the potential to be when actual funny people are behind it. It is not a perfect movie by any means, and doesn't provide any substance beyond a rapid-fire succession of laughs, but who said there's anything wrong with that? Simultaneously continuing the Apatow streak and giving the immensely talented Reilly a star vehicle, it's a terrifically entertaining 90 minutes.


OpenID MilkForWhales said...

This actually makes me want to check it out now. The previews spiked a little interest in me but it didn't seem like something I would voluntarily go watch. Now maybe I'll go see it after I get a chance to catch a few certain flicks coming out fairly soon.

Good review.

11:24 PM  

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