[20 December 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Start with the name. How hilarious, you can imagine someone pitching, the word “Cox,” repeated over and over, makes for all sorts of double entendres. Indeed. “I need Cox!” shouts a stage manager at the start of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and you can just imagine Beavis and Butt-head giggling and mumbling: “He said ‘Cox’!”
Add to this the wholly easy target, the musical biopic, and oh my god, the laughs are looking endless. Think of it: in Springberry, Alabama, little cupey Dewey (Connor Rayburn) and his better, smarter, more beloved and talented brother Nate (Chip Hormess) make their way down to the swimming hole one sunny day, extolling the perfection of the moment, underlining just how ideal their futures look. The jokes keep coming: following a montage of horrifically dangerous activities, they find the one that will change their fates.
That act of devastation—Dewey cuts Nate in half with a machete—is bizarre to the point of absurdity, just the spot where Will Ferrell takes his sports movie spoofs: “Dewey!” wails Nate’s torso, looking over at his legs, still standing, “I’m halved!” Their dad (Raymond J. Barry) arrives on the scene just in time to scold them for playing with his machetes, and then to lay on Dewey the mantra that shapes his self-image: “The wrong kid died.” The eight-year-old becomes 14 (now played by John C. Reilly), who finds his way out of Springberry through music, first the blues (“I done a bad thing cuttin’ my brother in half”), then some general amalgam of rock-hillbilly-pop, the sort of tunes played by boys in school sweaters and feathery hairstyles. When the girls swoon, the adults accuse him of playing “the devil’s music,” and Dewey’s set to move on: “I don’t need nobody,” he tells his parents on the way out the door. “All I need is my music.”
That, and the obligatory first wife from back home, here Edith (Kristin Wiig), pregnant at 13 and not exactly thrilled that Dewey’s still mopping floors in juke joints, just waiting for his big chance, which he gets when the black James Brownish regular loses his voice. The domestic arguments take the usual shape (“I do believe in you,” she protests, “I just know you’re going to fail”), designed to send him into the arms of his new big-haired duet partner, Darlene (Jenna Fischer, reprising her Blades of Glory part, sans skates). “In my dreams, you’re blowin’ me,” he sings to her on stage, “Some kisses.”
All the hardy-har penis jokes come to an admittedly clever head during a druggy hotel room party, when Dewey and company lie wasted among a throng of breasts and long legs. Relaxed or exhausted, Dewey looks up to listen to one of his buddies, his upper body out of frame, his limp penis fully visible. Face to dick, the men discuss the “distance growing between us,” until Dewey’s pa shows up at the door and the son has to explain himself yet again. Such comedy might be expected, given that Walk Hard is co-written by Judd Apatow, chronicler du jour of adolescent male self-loving, but they’re based in repetition, and so, by definition, get old.
The formula calls for “stages,” marked as musical styles (R&B, punk, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, as well as disco), by numbers of babies on Edith’s hips, and of course, by drugs. On each occasion Dewey walks in on his best friend Sam (Tim Meadows) with women in a back room, the seduction is made irresistible as soon as Sam says, “You don’t want no part of this shit!” (An interlude in India with John [Paul Rudd], Paul [Jack Black], Ringo [Jason Schwartzman], and George [Justin Long] combines the two staging devices, and goes on too long.) The third or fourth version of the Sam-as-source-of-drugs gag is exponentially less funny than the first (as this instance is already familiar from so-called straight bioipics), but the DTs -and-hallucinations sequence must be set up, and so, you endure.
This feeling that you have to sit through a whole lot of predictable jokes to get to one or two surprises weighs on Walk Hard. By the time you get where you know you’re going, the journey’s mostly forgotten.