Charles, Cash, Curtis, Dylan, Strummer…Given the glut of rock biopics and documentaries we’ve seen in recent years, it’s well past time that influential musical chameleon Dewey Cox got his due. Unfortunately, just as James Mangold’s Walk the Line felt too staid and conventional to capture the true appeal of the Man in Black, Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story — which I saw in the days before Christmas — never really gets inside the head of the Giant Midget. Sure, it covers most of the important facts about his life — the childhood tragedy, the struggle with smell-blindness, the breakout single, the dark f**king middle period, the LSD decade, the selling out. But, while John C. Reilly does what he can as Cox (and the resemblance is admittedly uncanny), I never felt while watching Walk Hard that Kasdan actually “got” the man or his music…or his monkey or giraffe, for that matter. Given his famous father and his earlier affiliation with Freaks & Geeks, Kasdan seemed like he would be the guy to do Cox justice, but this is sadly a missed opportunity. It’s just too bad Todd Haynes was busy with I’m Not There…Once again, nearly fifty years after the fact, Zimmerman will be walking-hard away with all Dewey’s laurels.
Kasdan’s take on Dewey’s story begins just before Cox’s final performance at the Lifetime Achievement Awards — You may remember Eddie Vedder’s memorable tribute speech, and the Jewel/Lyle Lovett/Jackson Browne/Ghostface Killa mash-up of “Walk Hard” got a lot of radio run over that summer — before flashing back to that defining moment in the White Indian’s life as a boy, the famous accidental cleaving-in-two of his prodigy brother. (“I’m cut in half pretty bad, Dewey.“) Rallying to his brother’s fallen musical standard, the teenage Dewey soon finds himself thrown out of the house, married young (to Edith, as played by SNL’s Kristen Wiig), and working as a busboy at a local black club, where he one day wows the crowd with a version of his early hit, “(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Man.” Soon thereafter, he lands a band and a record contract, and after the cutting of “Walk Hard,” the rest is history: Cox buys a monkey, lapses into a vicious drug habit, falls for his voluptuous backup singer Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), gets clean, lapses into another vicious drug habit…well, you know the rest.
Ok, ok, let’s go ahead and break the fourth wall. As a played-straight parody of the rock biopic genre, Walk Hard is admittedly uneven most of the time. But, it makes for a relatively amusing two hours if you’re in the mood for it. It’s nowhere near as funny as the original Airplane or Top Secret, but I’d say it holds its own with the Hot Shots flicks, and it’s miles above Scary Movie and its ilk. Yes, the film can be unfocused and scattershot (There’s even a decently funny recurring gag involving the kitchen sink.) A lot of the jokes seem like leftovers from the last Will Ferrell script, and, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America, Walk Hard occasionally follows the beats of its object of parody so closely that the movie loses its edge. Still, there are definitely some quality moments therein, from Tim Meadows trying not to seduce a naive Dewey into a marijuana habit to Cox meeting Buddy Holly (Frankie Muniz, inspired casting) and the Fab Four (Surprisingly, Justin “Mac Guy” Long is far and away the funniest as George, while Jack Black’s Paul is woefully bad and Paul Rudd’s John is just…strange.)
At any rate, I’m not going to give all the jokes away here, suffice to say that Cox’s black-and-white Dylan period tickled my funny bone the most. Dewey does two Dylanesque ditties here: The first, “Royal Jelly”, is a gloriously inscrutable poetic epic a la “Desolation Row” (“Mailboxes drip like lampposts from the twisted birth canal of the coliseum, rimjob fairy teapots mask the temper tantrum, O say can you see ’em?“) [See it live.] The other, “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)“, is an un-PC The Times They Are A Changin’ screed directed at the injustice faced by all the, uh, little people. (“Let me hold you, midget man, pretend that you’re flying in space. Let me hold you, little man, so the dog will stop licking your face.“) High art it’s not, and I can’t recommend rushing out and seeing it or anything. But, for a few solid chuckles over the course of two hours, Dewey Cox and Walk Hard deliver the goods decently enough. Someday — perhaps soon, given that Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Drillbit Taylor are all due next year — the helium will probably leak out of the Judd Apatow comedy factory’s balloon. But Cox, thankfully enough, isn’t the canary in the coalmine just yet.