**½/**** Image B Sound A- (DD)/A+ (DTS) Extras B
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick
screenplay by Gill Dennis & James Mangold
directed by James Mangold
by Walter Chaw I'm no longer certain what kind of currency there is in producing a biography of an iconoclast whose life is an exact simulacrum of every other iconoclast's life. Here's an entirely respectable film about Johnny Cash that begins in his childhood, proceeds into the Big Break, then segues from there into the euphoria of fame; the drug abuse and the groupies; the "Come to Jesus"; the rehabilitation; and the closing obituary. (It's like Denis Leary said about Oliver Stone's The Doors: "I'm drunk. I'm nobody. I'm drunk. I'm famous. I'm drunk. I'm fucking dead.") Though it claims not to be a hagiography, Walk the Line (like last year's Ray) featured the freshly-dead legends as advisors up until their untimely demises, a kind of personal involvement (and Cash's son John Carter is one of Walk the Line's executive producers, just as Ray Robinson Charles Jr. was for Ray) that precludes, methinks, most controversy in the telling. That's fine, I guess, this new vogue for these modern Gene Krupa Storys and Eddy Duchin Storys and Glenn Miller Storys--I mean, really, who does it hurt? But after praising the almost supernatural channelling of very public figures by talented actors, the only thing left is the drive home, a hot bath, dreamless sleep, and maybe the impulse purchase of the soundtrack at Starbucks in a couple of weeks.
For me, the best biopic of this sort is still probably Bernard Rose's largely fictional take on Beethoven, Immortal Beloved, which captured the essence of his music's mad genius, if not the gory ho-hum of Ludwig's day-to-day. (Ditto Amadeus and Song Without End.) But an admirable go is Steve Rash's rollicking The Buddy Holly Story: Despite being riddled with inaccuracies, it manages to portray the delirium of Holly's horn-rimmed, blue-eyed soul thanks in large part to Gary Busey's dedication to performing Holly's songs himself. It's a tactic taken by Walk the Line as Joaquin Phoenix (as Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (as eventual wife June Carter) do their own singing--something that lends a great deal of energy to the framing story, Cash's legendary 1968 concert (and subsequent album of the same) at maximum-security Folsom Prison. But it's not enough to salvage the droning redundancies of a genre that, should we see another Walk the Line next year, will only continue to show diminishing returns. Meant to add depth this time around, I think, is the death of Cash's older brother when both were boys and Cash's contentious relationship with his father (an excellent Robert Patrick)--but the outcome, I fear, is that Cash's suffering becomes formulaic.
For as individual as Cash's experience must have been, Walk the Line lacks the imagination to convey it in a way that isn't already familiar from dozens of films--not to mention portrayals of Oedipal difficulties--that have preceded it. The picture never quite takes off and, more, it never really made me forget that Phoenix and Witherspoon were doing remarkable imitations of other people. If lizard-lidded Phoenix can fool folks into believing he has leading-man moxie by portraying a man known for a lot of things but not a lot of natural exuberance ("Something weird about that boy," someone says in the picture--and they could be referring to either the ventriloquist or the dummy), then more power to him. For me, though, his Cash is sealed away in the hermetic tube of this film. On the other hand, this might be the most perfect role for Witherspoon since her Tracy Flick from Election: a little spunk, a little intelligence, and a lot of gorgeous life--some of the strength of this performance no doubt due the fact that, personally, no archetypal images swim to mind upon mention of June Carter Cash's name. I know she's playing someone and I presume she's playing her well, but all I can say is I got a kick out of her giant eyes registering irritation, concern, and despair when confronted in a 5 & Dime for not being "Christian" enough.
If there's no suspense in whether or not Cash and June will get together, a measure of discomfort in the beating Cash's first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) takes for reacting reasonably to her husband's philandering and pill-popping, and some disdain for the coy trainspotting of songs, George Lucas In Love-style, throughout (June cries "burns, burns, burns" at one point and accuses Johnny of being unable to "walk the line" at another), at least there are a couple of moments like that 5 & Dime scene that let the cast out of a certain straitjacket. The rest of Walk the Line, from the distracting cameos by actors playing Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), Carl Perkins (Johnny Holiday), Waylon Jennings (Jennings's son Shooter Jennings) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Jennings's godson Waylon Payne) to the inevitable march of familial destruction and reconciliation, is just filler between soundtrack cuts, decorating the path to Oscar with so much narrative confetti.
by Bill Chambers Fox issues Walk the Line on DVD in competing widescreen, fullscreen, and 2-Disc widescreen Collector's editions; we received the standalone widescreen version for review. Letterboxed at 2.37:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays, the film looks passable on the format but, because of the feature's beefy 135-minute running time, some detail (of both the shadow and fine varieties) has obviously been sacrificed to accommodate a DTS option. This is truly a trade-off, as the DTS track is irreproachable--and demonstration material from the opening shots of Folsom's trembling superstructure as Johnny's band warms up inside. Though the default Dolby Digital 5.1 option doesn't present the musical passages--the heart and soul of the piece--with the same depth or transparency as the DTS alternative, they're indistinguishable in most other ways.