Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but parody sits you on the whoopee cushion. That prospect faces any movie taking itself too seriously. Film biographies routinely serve up large doses of human foibles, substance abuse and bad choices. Biopix like Ray and Walk the Line are well-regarded, but that’s no protection from parody. Walk the Line earned Academy, Golden Globe and Grammy awards for its portrayal of singer Johnny Cash’s hardscrabble life — and a full-on comedy assault now in the cineplex. From writer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin) here comes Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It takes a big swipe at Walk the Line and every biopic that ever inspired glazed eyes or a desire to retaliate. That’s our Smackdown: Does Dewey Cox pack a stronger punch than the movie it parodies?
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If you squint your ears the story of Dewey Cox sounds remarkably like that of Johnny Cash: Rural upbringing, a bloody incident that kills a talented older brother, even a bitter dad who says “the wrong son died.” Dewey Cox plays those plot elements for inspiration and laughs — even the part about his brother reduced by half during a duel with machetes. Not surprising, Dewey’s life — like Walk the Line — involves a neglected wife, a grinding life on the road, and falling to a series of pharmaceutical and physical temptations. All this is played for laughs and some is shout out loud. Dewey drops LSD with the Beatles, campaigns for dwarfs and yanks out wash basins at every crisis. Years of rehab and professional wheel-spinning lead Dewey — like Johnny Cash — to reconciliation and retirement along the lakefront.
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The life of Johnny Cash offers grit and few laughs, real or manufactured. He sold house products door-to-door until his musical break put him on tour with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis and his eventual wife, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). A well-publicized drug bust exposed his drug abuse to public attention and scorn. After fitful comeback efforts and relapse and break ups June helps Johnny get clean. Along the way Walk the Line features Joaquin Phoenix singing many of Cash’s songs, with Witherspoon singing June Carter’s compositions. Highlights include a breakthrough concert at Folsom Prison in California and making peace with his father. James Mangold directed a script co-written with Gill Dennis.
Walk the Line easily stands on its merits; Reese Witherspoon earned an Academy Award. The question here: Does Dewey Cox have enough to overwhelm a film that is so darn earnest? John C. Reilly ably runs Dewey all over the musical lot from country to R&B to folk and rap. Reilly sings more than a dozen tunes specially written for film and most reek of double-meaning. Jenna Fischer plays Dewey’s band singer and very reluctant love interest. The action careens between Dewey’s drug and bedroom misadventures to arguments with his reconstructed ghostly brother and heavy doses of penis jokes. My preference: Fewer jokes below the belt line. In the slower moments Walk Hard mixes in naked men and women. Jake Kasdan directed this stew.
So, the question remains: Can we tell which plays the stronger hand, the biopic or its parody? Yes.
This one goes to the scorecards. Walk the Line — a good film — follows a recognized biopic formula: a special life.. loved ones.. crises.. resolution. Within that framework Walk the Line entertains, even informs a little. It never claims to be more than it is so a parody like Dewey Cox can — and does — have a lot of fun at its expense.
Walk Hard tattoos a slow-moving target with creatively suggestive songs and by twisting Walk the Line’s story arc. A number of cameos (Jackson Browne, Jewel, Lyle Lovett, the Temptations) keep the edgy goofiness interesting. It’s hardly a great film, but it’s already snagged a pair of Golden Globe nominations.
Walk the Line sits on the whoopee cushion but won’t lose its place in anyone’s DVD library. When you’d rather just laugh, put our winner in the player, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”