Two Dissolve writers keep the Walk Hard conversation going...
Genevieve: We’ve covered spoof films a couple times before for Movie Of The Week—both an established classic, Airplane!, and a nascent cult favorite, MacGruber—and both times, it’s been difficult to not turn these discussions into just a list of our favorite gags. That makes sense: Spoofs live or die on the execution and memorability of their jokes. But that makes it a little difficult to talk about Jake Kasdan’s 2007 musical-biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, because there are a lot of really great gags, co-written by Kasdan and Judd Apatow, that deserve our praise. But I think it’s important that we first establish why this particular spoof works so well, outside of the individual jokes. A lot of it has to do with the inspired, rich framing device of the musical biopic, which Scott already broke down in his Keynote. But if the framing device constitutes a third of Walk Hard’s success, and the gags another third, that final third belongs to John C. Reilly, who is absolutely essential to this movie’s success.
Reilly’s musical and comedy bona fides had been established prior to Walk Hard—the former in Chicago, the latter in Talladega Nights and Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!—but no film had (or has since) put them to such good use simultaneously. Beyond his incongruously lovely singing voice and comedic timing, Reilly possesses an innate sweetness that I think is essential to the Dewey Cox character. An overblown archetype of self-centered musical excess with a blatant disregard for both his fellow human beings and public-bathroom sinks, Dewey is an objectively horrible person, demons or not. In Reilly’s hands, though, he’s something more. He’s a musical savant, a goofball, and a deeply damaged human being, and while those qualities are all established via big, broad gags, Reilly brings a strange believability to this unbelievable character who’s an amalgam of any number of famous musicians’ lives and/or legends. I’d argue his status as a versatile character actor, rather than a big-name comedy star, also helps him walk this particularly thin line, as he’s not beholden to any established comedic persona or style.
But Reilly is just the central star around which a galaxy of comedic talent orbits in Walk Hard. Keith, there’s a lot to love about the supporting cast in this film, but if someone were to put a machete to your midsection, which supporting role or cameo would you single out as the one here?
Keith: I’d forgotten how funny Jenna Fischer is in this movie. Some of her performance directly parodies Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line, particularly the tortured we-shouldn’t-because-it’s-a-sin-but-we-have-to-because-our-bodies-want-it dynamic she has with Dewey, and her mix of wholesomeness and sexiness. But she makes Darlene her own character. Even when she’s just at his side at the press conference, she radiates a sense of total devotion to Dewey and whatever cause he’s pursuing. When they get back together later in life, it’s actually kind of touching, even in the midst of that ridiculousness. (A side note: Someone hire Jenna Fischer to do something. It’s been a while, and she’s great.)
Beyond that, everyone in Dewey’s band is great, but the MVP award has to go to Tim Meadows as Sam the drummer, who gets all those great “warnings” about drugs, and one of the film’s best lines: “Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays.” (Also great: The naked guy in the hotel room when Dewey’s parents show up. The expression on that guy’s face is amazing.)
We could just trade quotes all day, couldn’t we? But let’s talk about the music instead. At the risk of rehashing our past observations about how spoofs work best when they’re specific and they get the details right, Walk Hard works in large part because the songs are great parodies of specific moments in music history. And they’re pretty great songs, too. “Royal Jelly” has to be one of the best Dylan parodies ever written, in part because if you don’t listen too closely, it just sounds like Bringing It All Back Home-era Dylan. Much of the credit here should go to songwriters Dan Bern and Mike Viola, who wrote the lion’s share of the songs, with Marshall Crenshaw working on the great title song. (There’s even more on the soundtrack.) And looping back to what you said, Reilly’s skills and the evolution of the character sell the story. That dead-inside look he has while hosting his ’70s variety show, complete with the discoed-up version of “Walk Hard,” is amazing.
Do you have a favorite musical moment?
Genevieve: It’s hard to argue for anything other than the closing “Beautiful Ride” sequence as Walk Hard’s standout musical moment, because it was conceived as a standout musical moment—“His final masterpiece that will sum up his entire life,” as Eddie Vedder puts it. I’m going to try anyway. “Beautiful Ride” is great, and probably the best actual song in the movie. But if we’re talking moments, I love Dewey’s first time in the studio with his band. First off, Reilly’s wide-eyed, pantomime-filled performance of “That’s Amore” is one of the funniest moments in the film, which is saying something. (Just the choice of “That’s Amore” as the “standard” Dewey chooses to include on his first recording is inspired in and of itself.)
But the follow-up, when an annoyed producer (John Michael Higgins, being perfect) claims Dewey’s performance has “shaken my belief in the Jewish people,” and Dewey responds by singing “Walk Hard”—that’s a moment of parodic brilliance. As Dewey prepares to launch into a new song no one in the room has heard before, he tells his befuddled bandmates to just “follow along,” which, despite what Back To The Future would have us believe, is a lot easier to say than pull off. When the band falls into musical step almost immediately—even managing to sing backup on lyrics they’ve never heard before—it’s a great sendup of the sort of “studio magic” moment that shows up a lot in music movies, biopic or otherwise. Everything about the scene, from the pacing to the producers’ reactions to the seamless transition into a familiar success montage, is a perfect sendup of the sort of movie Walk Hard is affectionately targeting.
Going back to the performances briefly, I have to push back just a little bit on your praise of Jenna Fischer in this movie. She never really rises above “just fine” for me. (And I say that as someone who would also like to see her have a more interesting career.) But I admit that perception could stem somewhat from the fact that the Darlene character overshadows my favorite female performance in the movie, which is Kristen Wiig as Dewey’s first wife, Edith. I’d forgotten about Wiig’s involvement in Walk Hard, but I giggled every time her resolutely naysaying character reassured Dewey that he’s was going to fail, even when he was in the throes of success. Maybe it’s because the shrew-wife character type she’s sending up is so much more annoying and pernicious than the ingenue type Fischer is playing, but I find Edith so much more interesting than Darlene, and wish she had more to do in the film.
We’ve covered most of the main actors, but one of the slyest recurring gags in Walk Hard is its commitment to completely off-brand cameo casting. The supporting and cameo cast in this movie is seriously stacked with comedic talent, but also with a lot of left-field choices that are sort of comical in their own right. I adore Jack White’s mumbly, psychotic Elvis, for example, because it’s so overtly terrible and off-model, yet still resolutely Presleyan. And the lineup of talent performing at Dewey’s Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony—Jackson Browne, Jewel, and Lyle Lovett, with special appearance from Ghostface Killah—is so brilliantly random, I’m giggling a little just typing it. Cameos can often detract from or disrupt the flow of a film, but I think Walk Hard uses that dissonance to its advantage more often than not. What do you think?
Keith: I like the way Walk Hard is aware of the way cameos can be distracting, and runs with it, especially when Dewey runs into “The Beatles,” played in extreme caricature by Justin Long, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, and Jack Black. Apart from Schwartzman actually being able to play the drums, there’s really nothing that qualifies these guys to play The Beatles, and the film doesn’t pretend for a moment that the illusion stands up to scrutiny, which just makes it funnier. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also a commentary on how artificial it is when major figures show up for a drive-by in biopics. (I recall Tyler Hilton’s appearance as Elvis in Walk The Line as only marginally less distracting than White’s cameo here.)
So we’re agreed: This movie is hilarious. And I’m guessing our readers feel the same way, to one degree or another. It earned good reviews, and with Judd Apatow on board as producer and co-writer, it came from a recognizable comedy talent who’d enjoyed a lot of recent success. So why didn’t more people go see it? The film disappeared at the box office, making it the second Apatow/Jake Kasdan collaboration to underperform. (The other, The TV Set, is also good.) Was it too nichey? It’s a specific parody of musical biopics, but it’s not like there was an overabundance of those to parody in the 2000s. Mostly it was just Ray (the inspiration for Dewey’s “smell-blindness”) and Walk The Line. Beyond that, many of the gags will best be appreciated by music nerds, like the not-that-far-from-the-truth send-up of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds- and Smile-era recording practices. If you don’t get it, you might end up scratching your head. On the other hand, Dewey’s pet chimp and giraffe are funny even if you don’t know about Elvis’ fondness for exotic pets. And Reilly is just funny, period. Put him onscreen, and half your comedy work is done. Your theories?
Genevieve: It pains me to say it, because, as I think we’ve mentioned once or twice in this discussion, Reilly is great in Walk Hard, but the film’s greatest creative asset may have been a commercial liability as well. Reilly had success with big-screen comedy the year before Walk Hard with Talladega Nights, and the year after with Step Brothers, but in both of these films, he played second fiddle to Will Ferrell—to whom he bears enough of a physical resemblance to invite misperceptions as a “poor man’s Will Ferrell.” I know that sounds blasphemous, especially to comedy nerds who knew about Reilly’s comedic potential from Tim And Eric and other smaller projects—hell, even from Boogie Nights. (“Want to hear a poem I wrote?”) But if we’re talking commercial expectations and perceptions, the fact is that Reilly just wasn’t—and really still isn’t—a big-name comedy star. He’s a character actor, and pinning a project on a character actor is always a bigger risk than pinning it on an established star. Walk Hard starring, say, Will Ferrell might or might not have been as good as the Walk Hard we got, but I’d bet my pet giraffe it would have made a hell of a lot more money… at least its production budget back, which this Walk Hard did not.
All that said, I think Walk Hard is better off as a scrappy underdog that’s earned a bigger following and respect out of theaters. That’s often the way of things with spoofs, which tend to underperform at the box office before becoming cult-beloved items. (See also, the previously mentioned MacGruber, Wet Hot American Summer, Team America: World Police, and so on.) And I think your music-nerd theory might also come into play as well; Walk The Line and Ray both came out close enough to Walk Hard’s release that the framing device should have been familiar to most viewers, but so much of Walk Hard’s comedy comes from moments that are barely related to the two movies it’s most actively spoofing.
Keith, you mentioned that this was the second Apatow/Kasdan joint in a row to underperform, and while we’re all quite aware of Apatow’s successes and failures post-Walk Hard, Kasdan’s career has been a little more wobbly. He followed this movie up with Bad Teacher and Sex Tape (neither of which were what I’d call a creative apex), and a good bit of TV work. He’s one of those directors I have a hard time getting a handle on, particularly because two of his best movies were done in collaboration with Apatow. I wonder if you see anything that indicates a specific authorial sensibility from Kasdan—or Apatow, for that matter—in Walk Hard?
Keith: True confession: I haven’t seen Bad Teacher or Sex Tape. I heard good things about the former, but nothing good about the latter. I have seen Kasdan’s overlooked debut, Zero Effect, however, and I quite like it. The impression I get, looking at his filmography, is that he’s spent his time alternating work-for-hire material with films that have a more personal vision, and Walk Hard falls into the latter camp. This is clearly a labor of love from people with a deep passion for and knowledge of the eras of music it depicts. That said, it’s not quite like anything else Apatow or Kasdan have done, is it? It seems like a product of a moment when Apatow had enough clout to push through a movie that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten made, one made riskier because it stars, as you point out, someone who doesn’t usually headline movies (even though he’s the perfect actor for the part).
So instead of bemoaning Walk Hard’s failure to catch on with a larger audience, maybe it’s best to be happy the film got made, and that those of us who found and love it, found it and love it. It’s fitting, in a way: Dewey Cox comes from a world where albums and sometimes whole careers don’t get their due until years later. So think of this as the comedy-movie equivalent of Forever Changes or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea: It’ll be pulled off the shelf and appreciated for years to come, in homes and perhaps occasionally in places where people come to dance erotically, and need clean floors to do it on.
Don’t miss Scott’s Keynote on how Walk Hard revived spoofs by adding plot and character to the reference-fests the genre had become. And on Thursday, Noel Murray chimes in with an essay on other fictional musicians, and how films have recounted the history of popular music through them.