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  • nickkarner

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

“I joke, comma. Why? Because I love, exclamation point.” This is a line from Mike Myers’ excellent opening bit for Sean Connery’s AFI Tribute show. His balance of comedy and heartfelt appreciation for a cinematic icon was masterful. Sometimes we put what we love on an unreachable pedestal, but when it comes to pop culture, it can be just as much fun to poke fun at a movie, person, song, what-have-you, while still maintaining your personal fondness. Myers himself grew up watching Connery as super spy James Bond with his dad and he transferred that joy into his very successful Austin Powers franchise. I rarely get sick, but one faithful day, I woke up with a bad cold and stayed home from school, convalescing and watching, what else? The Price is Right. During one of the commercial breaks, an advertisement for a Mel Brooks Collection came up. I was dazzled by the number of VHS classics one could purchase. I was so young that I had to call my mother so I could get her credit card number to order the set. While parody/spoof films came before and after his reign, Mel Brooks is the undisputed king of the spoof. “Parody film” is a more accurate and even reverent term for films like Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, Young Frankenstein, and High Anxiety. These movies take a specific film or genre and throw in jokes and gags, often pulling references from various sources that also deserve a little gentle ribbing. I’ve always preferred the word “spoof” as it’s simply a funny-sounding word and says everything you need to know about the wildly silly movie you’re about to see.

The interchangeability of parodies and spoofs are settled through a case-by-case basis. While most parody films lean toward comedy, that doesn’t mean they can't say something important about our world. The satirical Dr. Strangelove is arguably the greatest example of this. Prior to the 1960’s, there weren’t a huge amount of parody films being made, although a handful of Abbott and Costello films, particularly Meet Frankenstein and Meet the Invisible Man, successfully sent up the horror genre. While the 60’s had a few fun examples, like Bond-ish Our Man Flint, the glut of parodies and spoofs arrived during the 1970’s and onward.

Among the many produced at the time: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (medieval films), Love and Death (Russian literature with a sprinkle of Ingmar Bergman), Murder By Death (a Neil Simon-scripted Agatha Christie spoof), Hardware Wars (a lovingly cheap Star Wars spoof), Piranha (Spielberg’s favorite Jaws knockoff/spoof), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (hard-boiled detective movies), Johnny Dangerously (the gangster film), Clue (a farcical board game-inspired murder mystery parody), Three Amigos (a Western spoof), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (blaxploitation), Meet the Feebles (variety shows), The Princess Bride (fairy tales), Fear of a Black Hat (hip-hop), Drop Dead Gorgeous (beauty pageants), Galaxy Quest (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc.) High School High (Dangerous Minds spoof), This is Spinal Tap (the music industry), Scary Movie (horror) and that’s just the 70’s through the 90’s! The ZAZ team (Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker) are responsible for some of the greatest spoof films ever: Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun movies. Gene Quintano’s Loaded Weapon 1 may be, and this is very much my opinion, one of the most underrated spoofs of all time. “Did you check out the Stallone retrospective at the Omni?”

All of these films, and the many, many unnamed movies post-2000, were admittedly made to profit (what movie isn’t?) off of well-known properties, but most of them were made with love and fondness even as they ruthlessly lampooned the very thing they were parodying. The much-reviled duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer represented everything that could go wrong with spoof movies. Among their slap-dash, poorly-scripted works were Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Vampires Suck. The big difference is that these movies were cash-ins, not parodies made by people who cared. Another film which could easily have fallen prey to this greed-inspired tactic was released in 2007 to generally good reviews but a shockingly low box office gross considering the talent involved. It’s a shame, because Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the best and funniest parodies ever made.

The musical biopic experienced a major resurgence thanks to the success of Ray (2004) and a year later, Walk the Line (2005). While the films were made with the utmost sincerity and reverence for their subjects, in those cases Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, their close proximity caused some critics to sit up and notice the striking similarities in plot. As would-be sugar empire impresario Homer Simpson poetically waxed: “I want it all! The terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles!” Ray and Walk the Line were very important projects for their respective directors. Taylor Hackford experienced a true comeback after a career that had petered out following the success of An Officer and A Gentleman. That isn’t to say his work wasn’t of interest; Blood In, Blood Out is one of the great unsung gangster epics of the 90’s, Dolores Claiborne is now regarded as one of the best Stephen King adaptations, and The Devil’s Advocate is...well, you know. Unfortunately, his post-Ray work has been less far less successful.

James Mangold had been making respectable low-budget dramas like Girl, Interrupted and Cop Land, but Line rocketed him onto the A-list and thanks to his later work on Logan, he became one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. It’s incredibly important to note that these were passion projects which the filmmakers had been developing for years. Clearly, they loved these stories and that love is evident in the screenplay for Jake Kasdan (who also directed) and Judd Apatow’s pastiche of musical biopics.

Dewey Cox essentially functions as a hilarious checklist of biographical cliches that still manages to be sweet and ultimately moving. The film was made during the absolute height of Apatow-mania. In 2007 alone, Knocked Up and Superbad were released, and while Cox fared the worst as far as box office fate, it did little to dim the prospects of so many Apatow-produced projects. Judd Apatow productions, whether he produces and/or directs them, tend to have a party atmosphere for the most part. Like the Hal Needham/Burt Reynolds collaborations of old, it feels as though the performers are having enormous fun and just invited audiences along for the ride. A jaw-dropping number of comedic actors show up for brief cameos or solid supporting turns, but the real deal is leading man, John C. Reilly.

Despite rumors of a nasty reputation, I’ve always been a staunch supporter of Reilly’s film career, particularly his early work. I do believe that he’s unfortunately gone the Johnny Depp route, meaning he got too famous and his work has suffered. That's not to say the later work hasn’t had its bright spots. Prior to his scene-stealing turn in Boogie Nights, he had the great fortune to play minor/supporting roles in some pretty big movies, including Casualties of War, Days of Thunder, The River Wild, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. You see him in these movies and it’s an odd experience because you know how talented he is and you’re wondering why he’s got such a small part. I’d go out on a limb and say he’s the most versatile actor of his generation. Somehow, he can play both comedy and drama with aplomb.

I remember seeing his beautiful work in Magnolia and The Anniversary Party, then being blown away when he became Will Ferrell’s co-star in the irreverent Talladega Nights, in a performance that meshes perfectly with the highly improvisatory nature of most Adam McKay films. And let’s not forget his Oscar-nominated turn in Chicago, his touching voice-work in Wreck-It Ralph, and the demented genius of his collaborations with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, which resulted in the creation of his iconic character: Dr. Steve Brule. His work on Broadway has also been exemplary, with a famous production of True West with his Boogie Nights co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman being a stand-out. It was clear in Chicago that Reilly could sing, but his ability to mimic the specific genre of music throughout Dewey Cox is uncanny.

Ishtar is a bad film. Period. What often gets forgotten is that the songs in it were lambasted for their awfulness, but that was the point. They’re supposed to be awful. On the other side of the spectrum, the songs in Dewey Cox parody everyone from Brian Wilson to Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan to James Brown and Glen Campbell, but they’re quite good. Great, even. The lyrics are often hilarious, as evidenced in the simultaneously innocent and wildly raunchy “Let’s Duet.” With phrases like: “I’m going to beat off...all my demons. That’s what loving Jesus’ all about,” they expose the hypocrisies often ingrained in the work of religiously-inclined performers who indulge in sex and drugs.

The Cash-inspired “Guilty as Charged” works as a truly catchy song that wouldn’t be out of place on a country-rock station, although the lyrics: “I'll send you home crying to your fat and ugly wife” might sound a little out of place in a Mac Davis tune.

I’ve always been a huge fan of nonsense, a trait which can be traced back to the weird little action films I made in my late teens. This probably explains why “Royal Jelly,” one of the film’s Bob Dylan riffs, may be my favorite, thanks to the insanity of lyrics like: “Rim job fairy teapots mask the temper tantrum.”

Ditto “Let me Hold You (Little Man),” a song written for the Short Panther Party during the “protest era” segment.

Cox’s highly offensive rendition “(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Man” is a classic example of a white person co-opting black culture, but since the movie is deeply meta and self-aware, it comes off as character-driven rather than a mean-spirited, racist jab.

“Beautiful Ride” is a sweet, semi-uplifting song enhanced by the increasingly bizarre cutaways of everything from Jane Lynch riding on top of Reilly to Chris Parnell getting gunned down during a random shoot-out with unknown assailants.

“Take My Hand” perfectly captures the overblown reaction to The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” when a violent riot breaks out; with naughty teens dancing and a priest (played by the great Rance Howard) getting slugged.

I love music, but I’m no expert, yet when I heard “A Life Without You (is no Life at All),” I knew right away that it was clearly inspired by Roy Orbison’s work, particularly “In Dreams” and "Crying." Thanks, David Lynch.

Then there’s “Walk Hard,” the title song and a Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated ditty that proved to be the breakout hit of the film, for what that’s worth. It’s another strong piece that works as a standalone song, exemplified by the rendition by Ghostface Killah, Jewel, Jackson Browne, and Lyle Lovett. Various musicians contributed to the songs, including Reilly, Apatow, and Kasdan, lending an authenticity that’s missing from so many pastiche-style musicals.

The writing style of Walk Hard is fairly different from most other Apatow films. There’s plenty of off-the-wall humor, random nudity (often of the penis-variety), and swearing, but the tone of the dialogue hews closely toward a declarative, meta-nature. A scene with The Beatles featuring Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long, lays it on thick as McCartney complains to John: “I'm sick of you being so dark when I'm so impish and whimsical!” The comment about The Beatles being “almost as good as The Monkees” is quite excellent. Another fun one is “My customers come in here to dance erotically!” One of the great visual gags in the film is Reilly’s age, or lack thereof. He’s clearly a man in his 40’s, yet we’re told he’s 14 years old and his bandmates are very much actual young teens. It’s never pointed out and the film gets a lot of mileage about jokes regarding his relatively young age and level of adult responsibility.

In the early scenes, an eight-year-old Dewey and his talented older brother Nate get into the mishaps any young boy would experience at that age: horse vs. tractor chicken bouts, rattlesnake tossing, and of course, machete fights, leading to one of the great lines: “This was a particularly bad case of somebody getting cut in half.” His brother’s death not only takes its cues from Ray, but introduces his peculiar impairment: smell loss. I was pleasantly surprised how well this small detail holds up. I remember upon first viewing the film feeling that the “no smell” thing felt random and unnecessary, but scenes involving his inability to smell marijuana smoke and Jenna Fischer’s Darlene Madison (a June Carter stand-in) encouraging a newly-cured Dewey to “Smell that shit, baby!”

Really amazing comedic work all around from the main supporting cast. Raymond J. Barry (Christmas Evil, Cool Runnings) plays to his strength as a no-nonsense jerk who constantly reminds Dewey that “the wrong kid died” and famous character actress Margo Martindale brings a straight-faced cheerfulness to her role as Dewey’s supportive mother. His band is made up of fine comedic actors Matt Besser (Upright Citizens Brigade), Chris Parnell (Archer, Rick and Morty), and Tim Meadows (The Office, Mean Girls). A hilariously out-of-left field insult is thrown out as Reilly screams at Besser: “Whose band is this anyway? You cocksucker!” There’s a climactic band fight late in the film where his bandmates question whether Dewey needs them anymore. Dewey replies: “Not unless you can open your mind...and learn to play the fuckin’ theremin.” This leads to some choice bits of dialogue, like “I had to borrow from the chimp to pay my mortgage!” and “You slept with me, too! And I've had confused feelings about that for ten years now!” Tim Meadows literally repeats the same line over and over: “And you never once paid for drugs! Not once!”

I’d like to take a moment and praise Tim Meadows for a fine career. He had one of the longest runs on SNL in history and what was essentially his one shot, the feature film version of his marginally popular Ladies Man sketch, didn’t go over well. I remember specifically a Mike Myers-hosted episode where Meadows wishes Myers luck and the Wayne’s World creator fails to realize that Tim isn’t visiting, he’s still a part of the cast while his co-stars have all gone on to movie careers. Yet here he is, years later, giving excellent supporting performances in many productions. He’s rarely a lead, but while his role in Mean Girls goes without saying, he’s also appeared in Popstar, Brooklyn Nine-Nine (as a very friendly cannibal), and Bob’s Burgers. I think he’s a secret national treasure. Of course, no discussion about Walk Hard would be complete without mention of the genius recurring bit in which Meadows warns Reilly of the dangers lying in wait if he tries the always escalating types of drugs he shares with ladies in seedy back rooms. And when I say dangers, I mean there are none, particularly in what is probably the most effective advertisement for marijuana I’ve ever heard.

Kristen Wiig and Jenna Fischer play the women in Dewey’s life, and each bring something unique to their roles. Wiig is flat-out great in a part which literally goes from giving Dewey her undying support in one scene to begging him to give up his dream in the next. Her throwaway line, “You’re never gonna make it” is one of my favorites. Jenna Fischer’s work here is a little trickier to gauge. 2007 was a big year for her as the release of Walk Hard coincided with the releases of The Brothers Solomon (a not-so-great film directed by the great Bob Odenkirk) and the much stronger Blades of Glory, which I’m ashamed to say I saw three times in the theatre. Why? I’m not really sure, but I just kept on bringing people to see it. It was quite a year for comedies after all. It would be insulting and highly derogatory to label Fischer as a “Flavor of the Month” actress who just happened to be popular during the production of Walk Hard. Yes, The Office had become a ratings juggernaut so the next logical step was the movies. When I look at Blades of Glory, I see a performance that isn’t particularly funny, but it doesn’t drag the movie down. While she doesn’t have the vivacity of an Amy Poehler or Anna Faris, I think this may be her best comedic performance, besides The Office.

The camaraderie between the various performers who float through Apatow productions makes Walk Hard into a fun game of “Spot the Actor.” The amount of people who drop in for the briefest of bits is staggering. Some of the best include: Jack McBrayer as an Alan Freed-type who mentions Dewey’s groundbreaking song was written “only 35 minutes ago.”; Mr. Show alum John Ennis as The Big Bopper, legendary director Harold Ramis, Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, and gifted comic Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) as a trio of Jewish men who run show business; Jack White as a mumbling, karate enthusiast Elvis Presley “What the fuck was he talking about?”; Ed Helms as a stage manager enthusiastically reacting to this new rock ‘n roll thing; John Michael Higgins as a verbose record producer perfectly aping the unnecessarily long monologue during the recording session scene in Walk the Line; and Jonah Hill as older ghost Nate, in one of the film’s funniest bits. He’s understandably very pissed off at Dewey for all of his foolishness. “You keep whining like a little bitch!” “I got no sense of legs!” His relentless barrage on Dewey is a highlight of the film.

The look and feel of the film are perfection thanks to excellent production value provided by cinematographer-turned-director Uta Briesewitz (The Wire), editors Tara Timpone (Kasdan’s regular editor) and Steve Welch (Mr. Show), and production designer Jefferson Sage (Bridesmaids, Spy). Kasdan, son of legendary Empire and Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, directs the film with a free-wheeling abandon, never staying on one scene for too long and captures the changing times and places as Dewey progresses through his career. The movie is jam-packed and it would take forever to unpack the multitude of quotable lines and scenes. An aside about the Lou Ferrigno-starring Incredible Hulk is particularly inspired. That’s what the film boils down to. Inspiration. The films which inspired Walk Hard are being mocked, but the movie acts as both a parody and a loving tribute to the joys and the ridiculous excess of the music industry. The film remains one of John C. Reilly’s finest hours.