Judd and Jake out of their depth
Judd Apatow, whose involvement in social comedies has been so successful lately, teams up with his "Freaks and Geeks" collaborator Jake Kasdan and dancing actor John C. Reilly (who showed us some nice soft-shoe in Chicago) to attempt a satirical musical biopic in Walk Hard. Drawing obviously on Walk the Line, Ray, and other sources, these guys do their best to provide some Christmas end-of-the-year cheer, but their hard walk staggers toward the end. Cox is a catchall of a pop singer, a chameleon Zelig/Forest Gump whose life from age 14, where Reilly absurdly takes on the role from a younger actor, till early 70's, runs through blues, soul, country, punk--you name it--with appropriate drugs. There's pot for soul, LSD for psychedelic rock--Cox gets to hang out with a crude version of the Beatles in India with the Maharishi. Cocaine leads him to punk--and so on. The trouble (or one trouble, anyway) is that though he's game to a fault, Reilly is colorless to begin with. It's impossible to believe teenyboppers would swoon for him. He has zero sex appeal. And that isn't funny like Steve Martin's "wild and crazy guy," either.
The constant shifts of musical style neglect to give Cox any unifying factor whatever. Apatow might as well have used six different actors for Cox, a la Todd Haynes with Bob Dylan. And Cox has a Dylan phase. Only you know what? The Dylanesque lyrics aren't at all funny, and satire ought to appeal to devotees. This is a music movie about a musician who hasn't a scintilla of musical authenticity. Or even a consistent shtick.
Of course there are plenty of laughs, but Walk Hard is little more than a string of jokes and rough hewn, even gruesome stunts: the way relatives are killed off seems infantile violent, while the sexual humor is adolescent. Jokes like the humping motions of couples in a black club, and the Jewish music producers dressed in full Orthodox regalia and with names like Mazeltov and Dreidel really appeal to the basest responses of the audience. This is way too sloppy work to compare with witty musical satire, and Apatow's and Kasdan's catchall screenplay seems lazy--ultimately uninventive.
Of course this is meant to be Reilly's picture, but he's the victim of it.
While it's been said the string of songs composed for Reilly to sing ups the ante for such satire, the incessant shifts in style keep the movie from ever coming close to achieving the subtlety and point of a classic comic music movie like This is Spinal Tap, which defined a genre and style, or an oddball serious fake music documentary like Brothers of the Head--both of which evoke the worlds and times they come from brilliantly: Walk Hard doesn't really try.
The movie's only (questionable) new note is the incessant mockery of the devices of music biopics. There it does have a clear and relentless point. The trouble is, it apes those biopics too closely. Again, Apatow and Kasdan have been lazy and unimaginative, good only at reaching for laughs--and too often reaching mighty low for them.
This movie turns humble musical rural people into trailer trash. It's a trailer trash movie. But where the biopic evocation falls short is that Cox really has an easy time of it. He's neither a Johnny Cash nor a Ray Charles. He doesn't suffer the consequences of his drug use or his marital failures. So the "hard" of Rock Hard is only a word, unlike the genuine rough life lived by Charles and Cash. This is the trouble with taking everything lightly--and going to overly gruesome extremes to show a dark side of the past. It veers from the bloody to the shallow, with nothing in between. Of course the lighthearted approach was okay, in fact downright welcome, in the youth comedies of Knocked Up or Juno or the trivial adolescent coming of age hassles of Superbad--moments in young lives the kids are going to move on from. But for a life from 14 to 70, this approach leaves you feeling empty.
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/