WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY
AMERICAN COX: THE UNBEARABLY LONG, SELF-INDULGENT DIRECTOR'S CUT
**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+
starring John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Kristen Wiig
screenplay by Judd Apatow & Jake Kasdan
directed by Jake Kasdan
by Bill Chambers In a recent magazine profile, Judd Apatow blamed the box-office failure of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (hereafter Walk Hard) on its opening-weekend competition, National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I could definitely see the combination of those movies hoarding the demographic spectrum, but I'd like to propose a different theory: I think that Walk Hard bombed because the laser precision with which it mercilessly dissects singer-songwriter biopics ultimately shamed audiences for falling for their literalminded epiphanies (see: Reese Witherspoon's June Carter telling Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash that he's unable to "walk the line"), Freudian claptrap, and whitewashed characterizations in the first place. The picture drips with contempt--not for the individuals who inspire these celluloid monuments (as I had initially feared), but for the institutionalized paradigm into which the lives of artists as disparate as Cash, Ray Charles, and Bobby Darin could each be comfortably slotted. For the middlebrow establishment, Walk Hard is the equivalent of getting teased for complimenting the emperor on his new wardrobe.
Since it forces co-writer and producer Apatow to stop being such a square, Walk Hard's intrinsic, relentless cynicism comes as an especial relief. This is a movie in which two young farm boys engage in a playful machete fight that ends with young Dewey Cox accidentally cutting his brother in two ("I'm halved!...Run and get Pa!")--the requisite tragedy that costs Dewey (played by 43-year-old John C. Reilly from the age of 14 on) his sense of smell while fuelling his obligatory redemption arc as he conquers the world with his music, child bride (Kristen Wiig) in tow. Another sublimely ridiculous death in the family compounds Dewey's misery, triggering his mandatory downward spiral into cocaine abuse. Meanwhile, numerous grotesquely-caricatured superstars cast with an iconoclastic eye make the kind of clumsy Gump-ian cameos that have become a genre staple. In one scene alone, Dewey meets a Buddy Holly played by Frankie Muniz (!) as well as the King himself, Elvis Presley (Jack White), who mumbles incoherently and karate chops Dewey a couple of times before drifting into the arms of a waiting throng.
The Jews in the film are all Orthodox, have names like "Dreidel L'Chaim," and "run everything," natch; the women are either trampy or shrilly unsupportive (hey--this is an Apatow joint); the blacks linger in the margins, waiting to be displaced or to fulfill their function as a corrupting influence; and to a one the Coxes are cannon fodder, with Dewey himself visited by the Reaper in a singularly callous postscript. Held up as an object of ridicule because he's in a constant state of creative flux, Dewey's a Zelig-like cultural chameleon (though confusingly, he's something of a Marty McFly co-optor of sounds, too) whose style changes in whiplash fashion from rockabilly to folk to flower-pop to disco. Again this seems a dig less at Ray Charles's transition to country+western or Johnny Cash's gospel period than at the lazy, boldface period markers from which we are generally meant to intuit major social upheavals and artistic metamorphoses in Hollywood docudramas. Walk Hard might be the first movie to belong to the so-called hater culture. "Oh, you got no sense of smell? I got no sense of having legs, Dewey!" says the ghost of Dewey's brother when he visits Dewey in rehab--and all I could think was, Ray, you've been pwned! Is it any wonder THE ONION A.V. CLUB's monotonous Amelie Gillette was wet for the film sight-unseen?
Let it be said that Walk Hard plays like gangbusters. (That goes double for the genuinely clever and immanently listenable songs.) You only really hear the proverbial crickets during Jonah Hill's characteristically profane cameo as the adult incarnation of said ghost: Where most of the performances are purposefully one-dimensional, Hill's--owing to the actor's intractably anachronistic demeanour--is the only one that comes off as technically crude. Apatow and Kasdan could teach human Xeroxes Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer (Date Movie, Meet the Spartans) a thing or two about spoofery; they aspire to do more than joy-buzz the audience with half-hearted Rich Little-isms, and their references are esoteric enough (at one point, the filmmakers invoke Wings for Wheels, the fascinating documentary on the creation of "Born to Run") that they act as a preservative, much like transplanting the structure of the relatively obscure Zero Hour! into Airplane! simultaneously rewards movie fans on an Easter egg hunt and gives that film a more timelessly prototypical or archetypal feel. Has anything in Airplane! dated quite so determinedly as the Saturday Night Fever bit?
Alas, the picture is almost as ephemeral as it is enjoyable. Loath as I am to admit it, the off-putting conservatism of Apatow's Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Superbad buys them staying power; I've now seen Walk Hard's theatrical cut once and the Director's Cut twice (the second time with commentary activated), and the jokes keep all but evaporating on contact. Ever the charismatic goofball, Reilly prevails over the arch conception of the character, at every turn narrowly steering the film out of the territory of an honorary "SNL" sketch expanded to feature-length--but his performance is nonetheless blunted by a screenplay written in the Juno-vian sarcastic pentameter that's responsible for the maddening disposability of modern sitcoms. Running gags abound (my personal favourite sees Dewey barbarically ripping sinks out of the wall whenever he's frustrated), but for the most part it's one-liners and witty ripostes, packed dense and dispensed like bubbles from a bubble machine: each one poised to impress but finally indistinctive, hollow, and weightless. And while Jake Kasdan is a better director than Apatow (he might even be a better director than his old man, Lawrence Kasdan), I also believe he's a better director than Walk Hard--overqualified, perhaps, to be the obsequious technician these indulgent showcases for the Apatow Factory's improv skills demand. There's real movie love--moreover, a complex understanding of cinematic policy--in the orchestration of a moment of shock nudity not unlike the one that punctuates The Simpsons Movie. It's the sort of thing that makes you wish Kasdan would quit toiling away in this particular comedy ghetto and go do that long-awaited (at least by me) sequel to Zero Effect. Still, Walk Hard brings the funny and a keen observational sense, which is more than you can say for the rest of what passes for parody these days.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Walk Hard arrives on Blu-ray in two unique permutations--the (default) theatrical cut and the extended cut, a.k.a. American Cox, aptly-subtitled "The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director's Cut"--that occupy the same side of a disc via seamless branching. The TC has going for it its pithiness, the DC its uncanny approximation of the wearying feeling of actually watching a movie like Ray, thus elevating the satire to a higher plateau. (That said, it's not nearly as unruly as the typical Apatow extenda-mix.) Furthermore, "American Cox" sends up the demureness of self-serious actors in a body-doubled sex scene (no, that's not Jenna Fischer, darn it), and I was grateful for the additions to the sequence in which Dewey's experiments with LSD yield the hysterically overproduced "Black Sheep," co-written by erstwhile Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks. I suspect this stretch of film was subsequently whittled down to the bone because it lampoons a musician, Wilson, lacking popular iconography or a correlative biopic, but I found it much more uproarious, nay, fresh, than the comparatively popular Bob Dylan interlude, "Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" aside.
Where the DC stumbles is in having '70s icon Cheryl Tiegs appear as herself for the sake of a lame punchline ("Cheryl Cox-Tiegs"), opening the door to other has-been cameos that not only go against the absurd personifications of every celebrity who came before but also reduce the picture to the sort of ironic "Love Boat" cavalcade that passes for high humour these days. Both incarnations of Walk Hard look handsome on BD, the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer reproducing every psychedelic colour with a vibrancy that borders on hostile. Arguably no film shot with the Genesis has ever come this close to approximating the texture of celluloid, although some wet detail, wishy-washy contrasts, and an ineffable smoothness betray the picture's HD origins. More remarkable still is the audio: Consistently thundering to life even when compromised for standard DD 5.1 playback, the Dolby TrueHD track delivers a topflight mix with clarity and authority.
No matter which cut you've selected, you have the option of listening to a congenial running commentary from Kasdan (whose tendency to be trampled on any time he cites a member of his repertory only affirms the muteness of his voice in the finished product), Apatow, Reilly, and executive producer/punch-up man Lew Morton that's admirably lacking in crosstalk. Was disappointed to hear that Fischer's vanity got the best of her in her old-age makeup (if nothing else, these prosthetics prove how irrepressibly beautiful she is) and edified by the group's commitment to annotating the movie's various hommages. For what it's worth, this yakker was recorded prior to Walk Hard's vanishing act at the box-office, hence talk of multiple concessions to test audiences strikes a grim note in retrospect. HiDef previews for Superbad, Talladega Nights, Steep, 30 Days of Night, Across the Universe, We Own the Night, Spider-Man 3, and the Blu-ray format itself round out the first platter.
Find the bulk of extras on the second disc, encoded in either 1080p or 1080i. Start with 16 full song performances; as gratifying as it was to hear Lil' Nutzzak's "(You Make Me So) Hard" in its entirety, the exclusions of "Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" and "Black Sheep" are conspicuous and aggravating. I guess they figure they can't give the whole soundtrack away, hence the joint absence of these ditties within the separate song demos as well. Of note among the ten deleted/extended scenes totalling 19 minutes is an alternate version of the acid trip Dewey takes with The Beatles (I'm sure someone out there will enjoy seeing Kristen Wiig tongue-wrestle Margo Martindale) and a funny--and frankly vital--window into Dewey's songwriting process that's probably closer to reality than anything in Once. Of note among the scraps of improv that comprise "Line-o-Rama" (6 mins.) is a brief but bewitching pantomime of oral sex from Fischer. God bless her, and God bless HD.
A host of featurettes amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things. "Tyler Nilson: A Cockumentary" (6 mins.) hears from the titular thespian's dick (no lie, though it's partially blacked-out), while "Bull on the Loose" (4 mins.)--get it? Cock and bull?--recounts the goring of a very expensive Genesis camera by a runaway bull. (It's hilarious in a "Jackass" sort of way.) Fischer--clearly relishing any and every opportunity to sex up her squeaky-clean image--drives our attention south by introducing us to her boob-wrangler in the otherwise-forgettable "The Making of Walk Hard" (15 mins.), a piece that leaves "The Music of Walk Hard" (17 mins.) to explore the movie's songbook and creation thereof in depth. I had to laugh when Kasdan says he recruited his friends to write the music: they're all exactly like him, i.e., long-necked, four-eyed, and precociously talented. "The Real Dewey Cox" (14 mins.) and "The Last Word with John Hodgman" (26 mins.) traffic in the exasperating gimmick of pretending a fictional character is real (especially irritating that Jewel, Jackson Browne, and Lyle Lovett join the circle-jerk after having contributed earnest soundbites to "The Music of Walk Hard"), and neither Hodgman's savvy nor fleet in-character interviews can disguise the promotional nature of the latter segment. "Dewey" himself resurfaces in "A Christmas Song from Dewey Cox" (3 mins.) and faux-outtakes from the Jimmy Dean-esque "Cox Sausage Commercial" (2 mins.), neither of which is operating at the level of Walk Hard proper. Inaccessible by yours truly and virtually anyone without a Playstation3, a batch of BD-Live supplements closes out the set.