Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Dewey Cox overcomes the accidental death of his brother Nate, and the subsequent disapproval of his father, to become a rock’n’roll sensation by putting his life experiences on disc. However, the attendant temptations of the touring lifestyle see him fall into a spiral of drug use and infidelity – though if one good woman can’t save him, perhaps two will do the job.

Boys will be boys, they say, and that’s especially true of the adventurous Cox lads, Dewey and Nate. Nate’s a prodigious musician, the apple of their father’s (Raymond J. Barry) eye, so he’s mortified when Nate is bisected accidentally one summer afternoon by Dewey, and makes a lifelong decision that the wrong kid died.

Little wonder, then, that Dewey (John C. Reilly) grows up wanting to honour Nate by being a soulful musician; he discovers the amazing effect that rock’n’roll can have on girls, and at fourteen moves out with girlfriend Edith (Kristen Wiig) to try to make it in the world. Initially, her claims that he’ll never make it appear to be accurate, but Dewey discovers that by pouring his troubles into the song Walk Hard, he and his band become a sensation.

While Dewey meets the great musical stars of the day – Elvis, The Beatles – his most fateful meeting is with Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer); drawn by an unstoppable attraction, the pair marry, only for Dewey’s existing marriage to Edith – and their endless children – to get in the way. Distraught, Dewey fills the gap with a host of drugs provided by despairing drummer Sam (Tim Meadows), making his walk back to Darlene and contentment a very, very hard one.

Hey, have you ever noticed how awkward musical biopics are sometimes? You know, movies like Walk the Line and…er, other ones, how forced they are when they name-check real people or show musicians coming up with their famous songs? Well, Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow certainly have – and while you might think it would be hard to stretch the joke out longer than a five-minute sketch, they’ve seen fit to make an entire film around it.

Unfortunately, it’s simply not funny enough. Whether exaggerating the events of Johnny Cash’s life or goofing around, there are moments in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story when you feel rather sad for the state of film comedy. The movie’s very first joke is a man shouting “I need Cox”, and it’s never too far from a knob gag, or indeed a knob (are penises really that funny? I refer you to the relevant bits of my Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall reviews (I could swear there was a common theme here)). There are naked women around too, because…you know, they always perk up a movie. Apparently.

It’s not completely laugh-free – there’s a nice bit where Dewey sings protest songs in support of little people, and there are other chucklesome moments – but those moments are overshadowed by a lot of stuff which is crass or just doesn’t work – the Jews running the music industry, for example, or Dewey’s countless children.

Whatever the pros and cons of the specific jokes, the film has a bigger hurdle to climb, namely that it never quite hits the right tone. It’s not packed with enough gags to qualify as a Rutles-like spoof; it’s not clever enough to remotely approach the wit of A Mighty Wind; it’s not sweet enough to stand comparison with School of Rock; and it’s not wild or broad enough to be ranked alongside Zoolander or Elf.

I mention the last two specifically because it’s easy to imagine what Will Ferrell would’ve made of the part – without improving the material any, he would have placed it in a definitively comic context (one could go back further and imagine a pretty good Steve Martin/Carl Reiner film). John C. Reilly does what he can, but he’s just that bit too actorly in the role, his intensity and destructiveness all too sincere.

Strangely, though, what’s good about Walk Hard is also mostly down to Reilly. While Dewey Cox isn’t a particularly funny creation, in Reilly’s hands he’s almost believable; and having proved he could sing in Chicago, Reilly belts out the tunes for all he’s worth, turning passable pastiches into pretty decent numbers. Meadows is good fun, while Fischer and Wiig make what they can of indifferent roles, but there’s nothing to get excited about in the predictable roster of cameos: Jonah Hill as the hacked-off ghost of Nate; Jane Lynch, filling in a minute or two as a reporter; Paul Rudd (he had to be here somewhere) as John Lennon alongside Justin Long’s George, Jason Schwartzman’s Ringo and Jack Black’s Paul. Credit where credit’s due, Rudd and (especially) Long have a crack at the Scouse accent; Schwartzman pulls a silly face, and Black shows no desire whatsoever to even approximate McCartney’s rounded tones.

I should explain that I speak as someone who’s seen Walk the Line: heaven help anyone unaware of what Walk Hard is actually poking fun at. Fundamentally, though, whether you’ve seen the Cash biopic is immaterial, since this movie all too rarely finds the sweet spot between parody and zaniness, all too often coming over as vulgar, flat and uninspired. If it’s better-assembled than the unfortunate Rock Star – this is supposed to be a comedy, at least – I’m afraid to say that I probably laughed at Mark Wahlberg’s movie more.

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