"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" is being heavily touted as the brainchild of writer- producer Judd Apatow. After the success of "The 40 Year Old Virgin", "Knocked Up" and "Superbad", I would expect nothing less than a great comic look at the life of a fictional musician. "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story", written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan ("Orange County", "Zero Effect"), is an amusing film, but it is far from great. If any other two people were behind the film, amusing would probably be good enough. But because Apatow is the co-writer and producer, you just have to expect more. "Walk Hard" is ultimately a parody of musician biopics and like any parody, some things work and some don't. In "Walk Hard", more things work than don't and there are a couple of things that help to set this film above other parodies.
Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) leaves his rural country home at age 14 to follow his dream of becoming a famous singer. Ever since the horrible accident (Dewey and his brother were playing with machetes in the barn), Dewey's father (Raymond J. Barry) says the wrong son died and can't look Dewey in the eye. Dewey and his high school sweetheart, Edith (Kristen Wiig, TV's "Saturday Night Live") move out and Dewey soon has a job mopping the floor in a black nightclub. Night after night, Dewey stands in the wings, watching the lead singer perform every night. Soon, he thinks he can cover for the musician and against the club owner's better judgment ("my customers come to dance erotically"); Dewey soon has the dancer's dancing erotically. As Dewey' star rises, Edith stays at home, constantly giving birth and telling him "You'll never make it, Dewey". Dewey starts to tour with his band mates (Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell, TV's "Saturday Night Live" and Matt Besser). Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer, TV's "The Office") answers an ad to become Dewey's new back-up singer. They are immediately and equally tempted by each other, equally attracted to one another, but Dewey is married and Darlene isn't that kind of girl. As Dewey's fame rises, different things tempt him and his journey takes him on a very Johnny Cash-like tour of the American music landscape during the last fifty years.
You have to give John C. Reilly a lot of credit. He really sinks his teeth into this role and makes it his own. From the moment he first appears on screen and states he is leaving home at age 14, you can't help but laugh at his portrayal of this ridiculous character. As he and his bandmates tour, he constantly walks in on Sam (Tim Meadows) and a bunch of roadies experimenting with some new drug. "What's that, Sam?" he asks in a voice taken from an after-school special. "You don't want any of this, Dewey. It's weed." Then, they discuss the various pros and cons of the drug in question before Dewey gives in and gives it a try.
When Dewey decides he needs a new back-up singer for a special ballad, he meets Darlene. Their duet is hilarious, showing Dewey knows the real secret of music, to hide he overt meaning of sexually suggestive lyrics, but he hasn't quite mastered the technique. He and Darlene begin an affair leading through the various musical styles of the last fifty years. At the same time, Dewey experiences stardom, drugs, all of the various aspects of a famous musician's life we have seen before.
This journey takes Dewey through many phases; he has his Bob Dylan phase, he meets the Beetle's (played by a surprising, amusing group of admirers) at an ashram in India and even wants to perform at a prison. Each of these moments is hilarious and pretty much spot on when parodying their subject matter.
Throughout the film, I kept watching Reilly in amazement. He wholeheartedly embraces this character. If he didn't say funny or off-the-wall things, you would have expect this to be a biopic of a real lesser-known musician. I have heard Reilly has actually performed many of the songs from this film, as Dewey Cox, on stage. This is not a new promotion technique; Kevin Spacey did this as well when he played singer Bobby Darrin in "Beyond the Sea". But Spacey treated his character with so much reverence, the film was unintentionally hilarious. Reilly treats Cox with reverence, but this only serves to make him seem more real and the comedy intentionally very funny.
The supporting cast is very good. Jenna Fischer plays Darlene, Dewey's new back-up singer. Their mutual attraction is constantly thrown in their face, leading them to embrace, and then think twice. These moments are amusing. Too a point. Much like a too long "Saturday Night Live" skit, there are too many of these moments and at a certain point, they wear thin.
Kristen Wiig is also funny as Edith, Dewey's first wife. But again, she has two pieces of shtick. She gets pregnant and constantly tells Dewey he will never amount to anything, even when his star is rising.
Tim Meadows plays Sam, Dewey's drummer. He is funny during their after-school special moments, as they discuss in robotic voices the pros and cons of various drugs. The rest of the film, he sits in the background.
As in most parodies, there are a number of jokes that are just too obvious to be funny. Dewey's first record executives are a trio of Jewish men, complete with orthodox clothing and facial hair. This is amusing at first, because they are looking for a great new soul singer. But when the jokes turn to their money skills and the fact they run Hollywood, well, we have heard these jokes so many times it just seems like Apatow is taking the easy way out. The same could be said of the various jokes at the expense of Cox's family, the poor dirt farmers from Alabama.
Apatow and Kasdan reportedly had a number of musicians write Cox's various songs, each in the style the song is supposed to emulate. They have done a really good job giving the film's soundtrack a lot of authenticity. Each of the songs is a parody of a specific musical style, but in many cases they almost become loving tributes. The duet between Dewey and Miranda is especially funny; all subtlety is removed from their ballad, a loving poke at similar ballads by people like Johnny and June Cash. Later, during his "Bob Dylan" phase, he perfectly captures the look and sound of this iconic musician's work. As Dewey sings, his band members, who aren't involved, look at each other in bewilderment, unsure of what he is trying to say. Later, as Dewey moves into an artistic impasse, he begins working on a song with a large orchestra, tribal musicians, people playing didgeridoos, harps, etc. When he can't get it to work, he shoots "I need more didgeridoos". Again, another playful poke at musicians who were famous and found themselves trying to jump new artistic hurdles in the late 60s.
"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" is better than most parodies. I was just expecting Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan to create a great parody, a parody that doesn't suffer from the same problems as other examples of the genre. But like most other films of this type, some of the jokes work, some don't. Granted, a lot more work here, but there are still stretches of time when nothing is making you laugh or you are shocked by the obvious nature of the jokes.