It’s completely sophisticated and occasionally brilliant — but Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story blows it out of the water. This fake music bio is the addle-brained brainchild of director Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow, who each made enjoyable comedies on their own earlier this year (The TV Set and Knocked Up). I’ll take Walk Hard over either of those movies, too. It mercilessly flogs the dramatic conventions of films like Ray and Walk the Line, and while there’s nothing particularly subtle about what it does, the comedy’s a superb exercise in extended silliness.
We first see 7-year-old Dewey (Conner Rayburn) growing up in Alabama in the 1940s, where he accidentally kills his musical-genius brother Nate (Chip Hormess) by cutting him in half. In young Dewey’s defense, he does warn Nate beforehand, “You know how mad Pa gets when we play with his machetes.” John C. Reilly then plays Dewey from age 14 to 71 as he thrills audiences with his songs, becomes a country-rock superstar, gets addicted to all kinds of drugs, fathers 37 kids, rips off Don’t Look Back and Pet Sounds, rips at least 10 sinks out of bathroom walls, drives away two wives (Kristen Wiig and Jenna Fischer) and every member of his original band, confronts his childhood demons, buys a giraffe and a monkey, and learns the meaning of life. In the middle of all that, he turns to the camera while having sex with a groupie and says, “This is a fuckin’ dark period!”
Somehow, Reilly doesn’t break character during that bit. He seems to float through this movie, putting full-demented conviction in Dewey’s passions for rockin’ out and partying hard, which makes the wacky situations all the funnier. He’s also a good enough singer to make Dewey’s musical stardom credible, and his clear tenor voice is let loose on a sparkling and wide-ranging batch of original songs, from the nonsensical faux-Dylan number “Royal Jelly” to the sweetly near-obscene “Let’s Duet.” (“In my dreams you’re blowin’ me – some kisses.”) When Reilly takes on the gorgeous Roy Orbison-style ballad “Life Without You (Is No Life at All),” the film cuts deliriously close to the thrill of the music bios it’s trying to mock.
A parade of cameo appearances adds to the comedy instead of distracting us: Jack White as a drugged-out Elvis Presley, Jane Lynch as a perky Dallas TV anchor with suicidal urges, and Eddie Vedder as himself, giving Dewey a windy and self-important awards-show introduction. Best of all are Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman (all uncredited) as the Beatles. Many filmmakers would have been satisfied with just having the actors mock John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s tics. Kasdan and Apatow give them an actual scene to play, as well as squeezing in as many references to Beatles lyrics as possible. The filmmakers take all sorts of pains like these, and that’s one reason why Walk Hard never wears out its welcome and gives us an album and several bonus tracks’ worth of laughs.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Starring John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Written by Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan. Rated R.