Walk Hard: Stumbling to Glory

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Gemma La Mana / Columbia Pictures

John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Machetes are not something you expect to find on hard-scrabble southern farms. But there they inexplicably are, and the adorable little Cox brothers are in the habit of fencing with them on soft-focus summer days — until, accidentally, Dewey cuts his saintly sibling in two with his blade.

There you have it, the utterly improbable central trauma that "explains" the rest of Dewey's life: his drive for the fame that can never compensate for his terrible guilt, the self-destructive drinking, drugging and sexual outlawry that sully his path to pop icon status, the bum musical trips — his adored brother may have been an authentic musical prodigy that Dewey dimly needs to emulate — that threaten his career. You've been here before, of course, with Walk the Line and Ray, to name only the most recent biopics about the trials and triumphs of pop-music icons. These movies, ritualistically recycling their subjects' most famous hits and their more infamous falls from behavioral grace, provide the last sentimental postscripts to their subjects' celebrity arcs. They have for years deserved parody, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is that long-awaited — by me, at least — of comic commentary on breathless mythomania. Not since This is Spinal Tap have I had such a good time watching amiable idiocy stumble on toward uncertain glory.

Oh the troubles this movie recounts: The first wife who contemptuously refuses to believe in Dewey's dream, the second wife who endlessly rebuffs his sexual blandishments, the trips up musical blind alleys (it's almost worth the price of admission to watch Dewey during his Bob Dylan and Beatles phases). And that says nothing about the ways inspirations for his songs strike him.

Somebody says something commonplace within his hearing, we see a dim gleam of recognition in his eye and — bam! — the next thing we know his band is playing the song featuring the overheard phrase, while a montage shows it rising on the charts. As it is in allegedly authentic biopics, so it is in this send-up. There is no effort or intentionality in Dewey's story. He writes songs the same way he gets girls — by standing around and looking receptive. We are to understand him as the pure product of, the pure prisoner of, his "genius." Which is why, of course, he is totally unable to cope with celebrity.

He has no core convictions to fall back on, only addled appetites to satisfy. The film is co-written by Judd Apatow, (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) who can do no wrong in Hollywood right now, and Jake Kasdan, who also directs with a light and glancing hand. They are good-natured lads — smart, but not mean-spirited — and richly blessed by the presence of John C. Reilly in the title role. There's an almost pre-moral innocence about his soft and squishy mug, a heedless exuberance in his playing. He's happy to play dumb — allowing Dewey to live profitably within the unexamined premises, the mythic fatuity, of his media-driven myth. Like the other films Apatow has been involved with, Walk Hard is a clever blend of very broad, occasionally raunchy gag-smithing and an unspoken, yet palpable, social shrewdness. For the moment, at least, this guy is somehow plugged into our half-formed, half-subversive thoughts. Walk Hard is actually talking about — well, all right, goofily alluding to — serious issues, though its creators would, I suspect, rather die than admit that.

That's all right with me. But I do think Walk Hard is a rather more dubious box office proposition than something like Knocked Up. Satire is ever a tough sell to the populist audience, which prefers sentiments of a more uplifting kind, while the crowd that might get a kick out of this film it will likely dismiss it as kid stuff. But call me a cynic, call me a curmudgeon, call me perverse — I loved every moment of Dewey Cox's story. I hope I'm not alone in that feeling.