"Give him a minute son, Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays."
John C. Reilly is one of a select breed of actors, very few of whom exist. He is able to play the broadest comedy imaginable and yet he has also been right at home in some of the most serious, stuffy dramas. He made his screen debut in Brian DePalma's Casualties of War, gained a certain amount of notoriety for starring in the first three films from director P.T. Anderson, and earned an Oscar nomination for playing the serious and thankless role of Amos Hart in Chicago. Lately however, he's been working almost exclusively in broad comedy, starting with 2006's Talladega Nights. He also turned up in 2011's Carnage directed by Roman Polanski, which seems to be the perfect melding of his two talents.
The best of these late career comedies is 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The reason the film is so successful is that it is a true parody in the vein of the Zucker Brothers comedies of the early 80s. Much like those films, writer/director Jake Kasdan understands that true parody takes an almost obsessive love of what you're parodying, in order to meticulously recreate that film's feel, style and mood, yet play it for comedy instead of drama, but never call attention to the comedy. It takes a lot of work and any filmmaker that wants to work in this style has to walk a very thin line that can break at any moment, but the most skilled at this style know the exact balance and strike it.
During the time when this film was released (and bombed at the box office) there were a rash of hit "parodies" made by two "filmmakers" that seemed to be in this same vein, but weren't even in the same galaxy. The movies they made (Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans) were nothing more than an assemblage of familiar bits from famous movies, regurgitated by actors who kind of looked like the original actors. Those movies were the perfect example of the times we're living in... people don't want to put in the time, effort and work it takes to think about comedy, they just want to laugh at their familiarity with more famous movies. But I digress...
Walk Hard is a spoof mainly of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, but it also manages to get in digs at The Doors, Ray, Don't Look Back, Great Balls of Fire and Beyond the Sea. It also spoofs some things that haven't been turned into movies, like Brian Wilson's mental collapse while working on "Smile," and the self-aggrandizing behavior of music stars in the 60s and 70s. The film tells the story of Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) who, as a youth, accidentally cut his brother in half with a machete. His father (Raymond J. Barry) disowns him, repeatedly saying "the wrong kid died," but his mother (Margo Martindale) supports him and when 14-year old Dewey wins a talent show that ends up sending his small town into a panic over his rock-and-roll music, Dewey runs away with his twelve-year old girlfriend (Kristen Wiig) to become a rock legend.
The film goes through all the beats that can be expected, his first audition, which is the funniest scene in the whole film thanks to John Michael Higgins as the man in the control booth who chastises Dewey for ruining "That's Amore." Here he meets the men who will become his band, played by a trio of underrated comedic talents, Matt Besser from Upright Citizen's Brigade, and Chris Parnell & Tim Meadows from Saturday Night Live. Dewey meets Buddy Holly (Frankie Muniz) and Elvis (Jack White, in a hilarious cameo), buys a monkey and a giraffe, has problems with drugs, is sent to rehab, has relapses, turns into a Bob Dylan surrogate, and turns into a Brian Wilson surrogate.
During this time he meets Darlene (Jenna Fischer) who is essentially June Carter to his Johnny Cash, as the sexual tension between the two becomes palpable. Dewey ends up marrying Darlene, but fails to tell her he's still married, leading both women to divorce him. His life goes into a downward spiral from there, and the sequences in the 70s are particularly funny with him reconnecting with his twenty-some children by playing catch with them. He also is challenged by his father to a machete duel and his father accidentally cuts himself in half, finally understanding how easy it was for Dewey to have accidentally done it to his brother. It all culminates in his big comeback at an awards show some decades on where he sings a song that will sum up his entire life.
The music is fantastic and written with such care that any of them could superficially pass for songs of the time. "Let's Duet" is filled with wonderful word play such as "In my dream you're blowin' me... some kisses," and his Bob Dylan-esque song "Royal Jelly" features lyrics like "my sense of taste is wasted on the phosphorescent orange peels of San Francisco." I urge you to seek out the soundtrack, it's fantastic.
The cast in pretty spectacular as well, with John C. Reilly giving one of the most underrated performances of the decade. I know it's almost ridiculous to say this, but he plays Dewey from age fourteen through his death, and all the various incarnations of his career, it's really a powerhouse performance. The rest of the supporting cast is great too, including a brilliant cameo from Eddie Vedder who introduces Dewey at his lifetime achievement ceremony at the end. The last title card is spectacularly funny as well, taking perfect aim at the self-importance of most music biopics.
Fans of Airplane, Top Secret, The Naked Gun, Hot Shots, and the like can rejoice that films of that ilk are still being made. Those who don't get those films, certainly never will, and should steer clear of Walk Hard at all costs. But for the rest of us, it's pure delight and endlessly re-watchable. Just as point of reference, I selected this as my number 8 film of 2007.
Tomorrow I'll be looking at my number 2 film from 1999, Tim Robbins' ensemble film Cradle Will Rock.