'Walk Hard': Parody That Verges on Pedestrian

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

The hoary cinematic genre of the musical biopic is by now so structurally threadbare, aesthetically bankrupt and riddled with risible cliches that one first response to the biopic parody "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" is: What took you so long?

The second response, upon actually seeing it, is: Why isn't it better?

Another sure-fire teenage hit from Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up"), "Walk Hard" is one of those fish-in-a-barrel comedies that mine a rich comedic vein but manage to come up with few genuine gems. John C. Reilly plays the title character, a country boy who as a small child accidentally hacks his older, brighter brother in half with a machete, a trauma that will make him lose his sense of smell.

"You've gone smell-blind!" his devoted mama shrieks, while his outraged father keeps shouting that the wrong kid died. Resemblances to "Ray" and "Walk the Line" are purely intentional, as Dewey strikes out to become a musician and, against all odds, makes it as an overnight sensation. All this while being a husband and a father at 15.

Directed and co-written by Jake Kasdan, "Walk Hard" proceeds to skewer the most cherished tropes of Hollywood biopics, from stock scenes of Dewey succumbing to drugs and groupies to the inevitable backup singer who becomes his mistress (played by Jenna Fischer of "The Office"). Meanwhile, Dewey hits all the major musical movements of the past generation, including 1950s rockabilly, protest folk music, acid-fueled concept rock, a hip-hop mash-up and finally the masterpiece he writes as a tribute to his dead brother, the redemption of all the squalor, prison and rehab that have gone before.

It all sounds so good on paper, like the "Talladega Nights" of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. And there are some chuckles to be had throughout "Walk Hard," which depends for much of its humor on scenes of graphic vulgarity that are usually glossed over in mainstream Hollywood movies. The teenage kids to whom "Walk Hard" is directed will no doubt howl at an early moment when Dewey is talking to his long-suffering wife back home while surrounded by naked, hung-over hangers-on, a scene that culminates in a sight gag involving a full frontal shot of a nameless actor's lower extremities. When the filmmakers aren't working blue, they make silly sport of the biopic's penchant for on-the-nose exposition, with supporting characters saying things like "Guess this is the end to a chapter in your life, Dewey Cox."

Shamelessly hitting the easy mark when it isn't pandering to the lowest common denominator, "Walk Hard" traffics in the same raunch and heh-heh double-entendres (think of Dewey's last name) that has made Apatow such a cash cow. But what could have been a satire on the level of "This Is Spinal Tap" or Christopher Guest's mockumentaries -- heck, even Austin Powers -- often plays like an extended, sophomoric "Saturday Night Live" skit, and not just because such "SNL" veterans as Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell show up in supporting roles. Stereotypes abound in "Walk Hard," from sex-crazed "Negro" dangers in the juke joint where Dewey hones his performance skills to the Hasidic Jews who run the record company that signs him; they eventually become as lame as a shockingly unfunny sequence in which Dewey meets the Beatles in India. (Shocking because Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long as the Fab Four should be, well, fab.)

Still, there are some hilarious moments in "Walk Hard," such as when Dewey, in his Brian Wilson phase, fills his studio not just with a full orchestra but with Aboriginal musicians, a didgeridoo, a glockenspiel and a goat. (In an uncanny moment of pop-cultural synchrony, this marks the second time this year that a fiction film has paid homage to the Bob Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back," here with Dewey singing the uproarious nonsense song "Royal Jelly.") Trivia fans will want to look out for cameos from Lyle Lovett, Jackson Browne, Ghostface Killah, Eddie Vedder and Jack White, who mumbles with flawless incomprehensibility as Elvis.

The best part of "Walk Hard," oddly enough, is the music, which has been written by such lights as Marshall Crenshaw ("Walk Hard"), Van Dyke Parks (the "Smile"-esque "Black Sheep") and the team of Dan Bern and Mike Viola, who composed most of the music in the movie. (The entire soundtrack was produced by Michael Andrews.) Like "Spinal Tap" and Guest's "A Mighty Wind," the soundtrack of "Walk Hard" holds up on its own, not only because the songs are genuinely funny and good but because, as he proved in "Chicago," Reilly has a glorious voice, his by turns tender and soaring tenor often recalling Roy Orbison. I'm not sure I care to see "Walk Hard" a second time, but I can't wait to hear it again.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company