Why do some dumb comedies work for you, while others fail? I don’t think there’s a formula to sketch or an x-factor to put under the microscope — I think it comes down to mood as much as taste or expectation. There is no rational reason why the same person who laughed herself to jelly over So I Married an Axe Murderer, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Kingpin, Old School, Borat, and even Dodgeball should be left lukewarm by There’s Something About Mary and Wedding Crashers; or turned off Talladega Nights before the first hour was out; or wished that the talent involved in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story had wound up in collective traction before the project got off the ground. This phenomenon — call it the Law of Inconsistent Reception — seems to affect everyone who’s ever watched more than three comedies that rely on slapstick, sight gags or gross-out humor to elicit a good chunk of the funny. Despite similar tones, shared talent and — frequently — even kindred punchlines, these comedies succeed randomly rather than causally on an individual basis. The whole thing is completely without matrix. So, while I may have thought Walk Hard was a brutal ninety-odd minutes to sit through, I know enough about the vagaries of humor not to discredit the charms it may hold for the next viewer in line. In cases like these, all a reviewer can do is supply factual information about said potential charms, and move the fuck on.
Look at the players: we have a script co-written by Judd Apatow of The 40 Year Old Virgin, and direction by Jake Kasdan, who surely has much Pajiba cred as a Freaks and Geeks lenser. That pairing is enough to earn Walk Hard a serious look by our readers, who’ve expressed admiration for these works while pointing out all the elements that set them apart from the general raft of consumer comedy (from what I’ve seen of current and upcoming Apatow movies, though, the whole thing’s turning into a bit of a factory). We have John C. Reilly in the lead role, propped up by a legion of comic soldiers that includes Harold Ramis, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jenna Fischer (Pam from The Office, nearly unrecognizable under all that drag), and the newly-minted Apatow stabler Jonah Hill (Seth from Superbad). We have a few pieces of semi-inspired stunt casting: Jack White as Elvis, Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly, and Jason Schwartzman as Ringo Starr. We even have a couple of celebrity self-whoring walk-ons courtesy of Lyle Lovett, Jewel and Eddie Vedder. All of which ought to add up to something worth writing Pajiba about, and no doubt will for some of you. Like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Freaks and Geeks (and Office Space and most Christopher Guest productions), Walk Hard should have either transcended the Dumb Comedy category altogether and attained Intelligent Satire, or at the very least been a fucking awesome Dumb Comedy in its purest, barest, poopiest form. I would have so been there even for the latter (and be warned: style-wise, Walk Hard is more Naked Gun than Superbad, for those of us who’ve never been fans of the Leslie Nielsen school of comedy).
In case the movie’s title and poster art didn’t tip you off, Walk Hard spoofs the music biopic genre, most especially Walk the Line and Ray. But Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Jim Morrison are only three of the film’s targets (their stories are kid-gloved with love, to be sure, but targeted all the same); by my count, Walk Hard also tweaks Dylan, The Beatles, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, the Elvises Presley and Costello, and even The Partridge Family. Dewey Cox is a small-town Southern boy whose more talented brother, Nate, was cut in half in the Darwin of his youth during a playful machete fight in the family barn. This event injects Dewey with a wicked streak of the blues and inspires him to musical greatness. He emerges as a doo-wop favorite, goes platinum with a country-blues single, suffers through a dark, drug-addled “middle period” that produces coked-up proto-punk riffs, finds his inner hippy in the 1960s, sinks to variety show lows in the 1970s, drifts into family-focused obscurity in the 1980s, then emerges once again thanks to the Ironic Comeback cards MTV started handing out to the likes of Tony Bennett and William Shatner in the 1990s.
Walk Hard does an adequate job of mining musical genres, eras and egotism, and has a few moments that were livened by a quickness of wit I found absent in 95% of the film (if you like the extended, obvious, wink-wink-it’s-coming set-up to a tepid joke that wasn’t worth the wait, step right up). I appreciated the variety show spoof, which was a slam-dunk on has-been filler for the supper hour (and featured what I believe is an uncredited Jane Lynch as a mercenary fluff reporter). I also appreciated Paul Rudd as John Lennon, and Jason Schwartzman as Ringo Starr. They provided one of the few moments that didn’t completely bomb for me (despite being saddled by Jack Black’s cringe-worthy attempt at spoofing McCartney). The other moment that didn’t completely bomb was Dewey’s foray into the Dylan protest song; when he sings about “the mouse with the overbite” and “the toaster of his life”, I definitely tweetered.
As for John C. Reilly, the guy who’s been working hard at memorable minor roles since before Misery, reviews are mixed. From where I sat, he was serviceable but not outstanding in a comedy that suffered from poor timing and mediocre repartee. It’s not enough to get all the references right — that much is quantifiable about the Dumb Comedy, and it’s something that SNL has been relying on, to its detriment, for too long (Apatow modeling his work on bad SNL formula is something to worry about). You can’t roll without the wit, and on a pain scale, I would ten times rather sit through a bad action or horror movie than a comedy that doesn’t do for me. I’m still smarting a day later.
Due props, however, to the spoof subject. The most worthwhile element of Walk Hard isn’t so much the way it takes on the musician biopic film, but how it exposes the clichéd architecture of the musician’s actual rise and fall independent of any biographical re-telling: the grass roots, the storied success, the drugs, the orgies, the failed marriages, the attempts at refashioning, the fading into memory, and — if they’re lucky — the unexpected recognition by new generations decades after they’d been counted out of the picture. It’s all so typical and, while we can thank the (auto)biography and biopic for familiarizing us with the structure, these are the patterns many musicians actually live; I can appreciate a film that gently pokes at the way these guys and their admirers often take their histories as so terribly significant and unique. It’s a shame the comedic power behind Walk Hard couldn’t muster up something more to my liking, considering the rich subject matter. But rather than insist that Walk Hard sucks the Mighty Unfunny (which, in my inconsistent little world, it does), I’ll simply state that my relationship with the movie sucked. Dewey and I just didn’t work out, but he seems to be popular in the schoolyard, and he’ll probably make a great boyfriend for someone else. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on December 22, 2007.)