Thursday, December 27, 2007

Laughing 'hard' with John C. Reilly

“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is a box office dud, just sneaking in at the bottom of the top 10 movies in its opening weekend. It is hard to say why since the film is a silly, but sly lampoon of the musician bio-pic.

The film’s co-writer Judd Apatow had a good year with two big summer hits, one as a writer/director (“Knocked Up”) and the other as a producer (“Superbad”). It looked like the Apatow branding was becoming a sure path to the top of the box office. So what went amiss with “Walk Hard,” because it certainly isn’t an issue of quality? Maybe this style of comedy just doesn’t play well this time of year.

Or perhaps audiences have grown weary of parody films given the slew of lame films like “Epic Movie,” “Date Movie” and “The Comebacks.” These films are made quick and with little thought. The formula is to reference several recent films and do a shot-by-shot remake of a scene with a slight twist. This can work, but more often than not it is just lazy and cheap filmmaking.

A genre parody shouldn’t merely reference films that fall within its target of satire, but mock the conventions and clichés of the genre. Mel Brooks’ best films did this better than any other, and thankfully “Walk Hard” is in that tradition rather than the new parody formula. “Walk Hard” also recalls “This is Spinal Tap” in a good way even if its comedy volume doesn't quite make it to 11.

“Walk Hard” stars John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox, a rock star who is most directly tailored after Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” but who has an uncanny ability to play any style. This leads to amusing songs in the style of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson.

Apatow and co-writer/director Jake Kasdan hit all the ups and down of the rock star lifestyle and do a fine job mocking the somber tones of “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” The childhood flashbacks of those films are sent up in a hilarious sequence in which Dewey accidental cuts his brother in half. As the doctor informs Dewey and his parents, “It is a particularly bad case of somebody being cut in half.”

Reilly, who has been a reliable supporting player for a decade in films as diverse as “Boogie Nights,” “The Aviator” and “Talladega Nights,” is on top form in his first lead role. He is adept at the physical comedy and can deliver a joke with the best, but Reilly, who is also a good dramatic actor, does more with the material. There’s an underlining sincerity in his performance that keeps the more raucous comedy grounded.

There are moments when the film seems to be trying too hard to make Reilly be Will Ferrell, especially during a scene when he is running around in his underwear, but Reilly has his own goofy charm and shines most in the musical numbers. The songs range from relatively straight homage to outrageous spoof. The best is a duet with Jenna Fisher (“The Office”) called “Let’s Duet.” Fisher as Dewey’s June Carter-esque second wife is a perfect comedic match for Reilly and has just the right tone for the material.

The whole cast, which includes “Saturday Night Live” cast members and veterans Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and Kristin Wiig and cameos by Jack White, Harold Ramis, Frankie Muniz, Jewel, Lyle Lovett and others, is excellent. Cast members approach the material at just the right angle. There’s a wink and nudge, but there’s also an attention to detail provided by Kasdan.

The film gets the look and feel right. Kasdan as a director switches to grainy black and white for a great Bob Dylan parody and alters his palate again to take on the bright, tacky colors of 1970s variety shows. There’s a particularly humorous sequence featuring Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd and Justin Long as The Beatles that recalls the obscure mockumentary “The Rutles: All You Need is Cash.”

When reviewing comedy all you can do is say whether you laughed, and I did laugh, often heartily and louder than anyone in the theater. The film’s humor is at times vulgar, but never mean-spirited. The more familiar you are with music history, the funnier the film will be. Those who grew up in the era the film targets or those well versed in the time period will have the most fun.

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