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MOVIE REVIEW

A 'Walk' on the witty side

This gleeful skewering of popular music works because of the talents of director Kasdan and a cast led by Reilly.

December 21, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's not easy to "Walk Hard," not easy to live the life that led to being immortalized in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." Dewey Cox -- singer, songwriter, legend -- would be the first to tell you that, if he were for real. He's not, of course, but there are moments during this smart and genial satire when you could swear he was.

That's because this gleefully jaundiced skewering of American popular music in general and biopics like "Walk the Line" and "Ray" in particular knows that humor comes from both loving your source material and knowing it inside out.

"Walk Hard" also benefits from being written for the exceptional John C. Reilly, one of the few serious dramatic actors who has a true gift for comedy. And he can sing, too, 15 monumental spoofs, as clever as they are melodic, that cover the musical waterfront from rockabilly to punk and include one last riff after the final credits roll.

Though the advertising for "Walk Hard" trumpets it as "from the guy who brought you 'Knocked Up' and 'Superbad,' " this is really putting the cart before the horse. The shrewd, on-target nature of the satire points not to Judd Apatow but rather to the sensibility of his director and co-writer Jake Kasdan.

Kasdan, whose credits include TV's "Freaks and Geeks," wrote and directed the sadly little-seen "The TV Set," a dead-on comic dissection of the TV pilot season that has much more in common with "Walk Hard" than any of those billboarded credits.

Every joke in "Walk Hard" doesn't work, of course, and some of it, including a male genital close-up, is raunchier than it needs to be (the Apatow touch, no doubt), but the film's comic batting average is excellent. That's because the "Walk Hard" team knows which cliches to embrace and understands that for this kind of sendup to be successful, it must treat the material as seriously as possible.

Helping make that happen was the decision to spend the six months before shooting began to record all of Dewey Cox's songs. Reilly, whose rendition of "Mr. Cellophane" in "Chicago" helped win him an Oscar nomination, has an excellent voice, and all that early vocal work got him so deeply into the character you really wonder if he'll ever get out.

Like "Walk the Line," "Walk Hard" begins with the framing device of a contemporary concert before telling its story chronologically. So back we go to bucolic Springberry, Ala., to a beautiful day in 1946 when Dewey's gifted brother Nate is so sure that "ain't nothing bad going to happen today" that he starts "thinking ahead to this long life of mine."

Unfortunately, Nate is not much of a prognosticator, and quicker than you can say "the wrong kid died" (which Dewey's dad, smartly played by Raymond J. Barry, says all the time), an unfortunate machete accident (don't ask) leaves Nate time only to tell his brother "you have to be double great for both of us" before conveniently expiring.

Dewey does his level best to be double great, starting with his trademark hit, "Walk Hard," which he records in a Sun Records look-alike studio for a label called Planet. Present at the creation, because everyone knows "the Jews control show business," are a trio of Hasids led by the shrewd L'Chai'm (comedy veteran Harold Ramis).

Like a musical Zelig, Dewey has a hand in all the permutations of pop. He meditates with the Beatles in India, gets poetic like Bob Dylan, goes through a Brian Wilson period when he demands 50,000 didgeridoos for his next album, and even sings a somber protest song called "Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" while members of the Short Panther Party, complete with berets, look on approvingly.

Dewey's personal life is more chaotic. Encouraged by longtime drummer Sam ("Saturday Night Live" veteran Tim Meadows), he tries every drug known to man, with unhappy results. Edith (Kristen Wiig), the wife who doesn't believe in him, is soon gone, replaced by the churchgoing Darlene Madison, who turns out to be one hot number.

With Jenna Fisher matching Reilly lick for lick, the Madison/Cox courtship, highlighted by sexual energy channeled into furniture building, leads to one of the film's funniest songs, the double-entendre-filled "Let's Duet."

Throughout it all, there are several things you can count on about Dewey Cox. He will change costumes a lot (about 100 times) but show up frequently in his underwear. He will rip sinks without number off bathroom walls. And he will never, not even once, forget to makes us laugh. Let's duet, indeed.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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"Walk Hard." MPAA rating: R, for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In general release.

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