John C. Reilly brings the fictional Dewey Cox to vibrant, hilarious life.
There's an impudent slapstick energy to "Walk Hard," a spoof of rise-and-fall rock 'n' roll biographies. The cookie-cutter clichés of "Ray," "Great Balls of Fire" and "Walk the Line" are ripe for mockery, and writer-producer Judd Apatow, star John C. Reilly and director Jake Kasdan eviscerate the genre gleefully.
Reilly plays Dewey Cox, a dimwitted superstar whom we follow from hardscrabble youth to his creaky antiquity at a lifetime achievement awards show.
Dewey's early days were marked by the kind of heartbreak that inevitably sparks musical greatness: As a boy, he accidentally cut his piano-prodigy brother in half with a machete. After promising his bisected bro to be good enough for two people, he set off on a singing career that turned him into dozens: Dewey at various points bears an uncanny resemblance to Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan. Reilly plays the part with sublime earnestness beneath a gallery of ridiculous wigs and beards as his career caroms from rockabilly through psychedelia and disco.
The story follows the well-traveled route for such tales, and Kasdan shoots it like a high-toned Oscar candidate. Dewey begins his journey as a last-minute fill-in at a black nightclub, persuading the owner that he has learned the ailing star's routine by heart, but not anticipating how he'll sound singing "Mama You Got to Love Your Negro Man." His ever-pregnant, skeptical wife Beth Anne (Kristen Wiig) provides plenty of static on the home front while he tours. His sultry singing partner (Jenna Fischer) suggests that more than their voices should entwine, then primly pushes him away, shocked that he'd take her for that kind of girl.
Dewey succumbs to the usual temptations -- setting up a cameo by the Temptations -- indulging in all manner of ribald, drugged-up tomfoolery. All the while he remains somehow unaware that it's not OK to act like the superhuman music god people tell him he is. When Beth Anne shouts, "It's against the law to be married to two people at the same time!" Dewey protests, "What about if, if you're famous?"
As troubled times descend, some of his band yearn for the happy early days, only to be reminded, "That was early Cox, this is middle period Cox," while Dewey himself wails, "this sure is a hard period!" At every dramatic crescendo, he charges into a bathroom, yanks the sink from the wall and shatters it on the floor. When things get really rough, he enters a public restroom and busts up several.
The cast is packed with familiar faces from Apatow's acting troupe, TV comedy and pop music. Jack White plays a mush-mouthed, indecipherable Elvis, Jack Black plays Paul McCartney and Eddie Vedder, Ghostface Killah and Jewel play themselves. But this is entirely Reilly's picture. He gives Dewey, who is essentially a coat rack to hang jokes on, an endearing sweetness, and performs his own singing and guitar work on 33 original songs. If this rise to top billing marks the beginning of middle period Reilly, it ought to be a swell period.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186