The Reeler


December 20, 2007

Walk Hard

Biopic parody owes a debt to the Zuckers with comedy that's big, silly and very surreal

The spirit of the Zucker Brothers lives again in the new spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Technically, I suppose the spirit of the Zucker Brothers never really died seeing as how all those guys are still alive, but you get my meaning. Having already proven himself the biggest and most dependably bankable brand name in comedy since The Farrelly Brothers, writer/producer Judd Apatow (along with frequent collaborator, writer/director Jake Kasdan) stakes his claim on the land of cinematic parody, a once-thriving community that has been laid low by too many subpar comedies with the word "movie" in the title.

Knocked Up fans beware: Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) and his fellow characters are not subject to Apatow's usual brand of grounded, observational humor. The comedy in Walk Hard is big, silly and very surreal, just as the Zuckers would have it (and did have it in their own rock star takedown Top Secret). In this comic universe, when a character resists a handful of drugs by howling, "I can't succumb to the temptations!", you're almost certain to see the doo-wop group The Temptations singing up a storm just down the hall.

Guys like the Zuckers and Mel Brooks ran out of steam because they ran out of new material, resorting instead to rehashing genres they had already exhausted in a parade of sequels or lavish Broadway musicals. But in the past few years, Hollywood has given us a brand new genre to mock: the musical biopic. It's hard to think of a cliché Apatow and Kasdan missed -- even the Easter egg after the credits nails a classic example of biopic stupidity (so yes, stay until the bitter end, folks). The annoyingly episodic story about Cox's powerful rise (tee hee!) and fall feels less like a structural misstep than an intentional jab at movies that try to cram an entire life story into what amounts to a 95-minute flashback sequence.

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Apatow and Kasdan crib that idea too. Walk Hard begins with Cox, also known as "The Giant Midget" (John C. Reilly), lost in thought before an important performance. "Give him a minute son," his drummer Sam (Tim Meadows) tells the P.A. trying to rouse him from his meditation, "Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays." And so he does, from the innocent childhood accident (while playing with machetes) that cost his brother his life, to the tumultuous affair with his backup singer (a lusty Jenna Fischer), to the heady excesses of fame and stardom, i.e. pills, booze, women and pet monkeys.

Reilly, who stole scenes from co-star Will Ferrell in Apatow's Talladega Nights with impressive consistency, is clearly in his element as a man too dumb to realize his life is one enormous farce. The supporting cast is a veritable all-star lineup of comedy that guys (the highlights include John Michael Higgins, Harold Ramis, Kristen Wiig, and, as The Beatles, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman). Do any of them possess even two dimensions of characterization? Not on your life. Do the jokes work? Yeah, mostly. I would have liked a lot more punch from the songs; the film is littered with performance footage but only one number, the double entendre-soaked "Let's Duet," yields big laughs akin to the stuff in something like Team America. But a few of the gags, including a send-up of the standard operating procedure for male-versus-female nudity in sex scenes (i.e. the women are all butt naked, the men are concealed from the nipples down), are absolute screamers.

Sure, Walk Hard is dumb but, like the best parodies (Blazing Saddles, The Naked Gun) it's also smarter than it looks. Kasdan and Apatow had the wherewithal to identify and savage all of these tired plot devices, not to mention the good sense not to popularize any of the tropes they're deconstructing. Wherever the Zuckers are now -- somewhere in California, I imagine -- they must be looking down (or up) and smiling.

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