John C. Reilly Walks the talk in mock-rock biopic

by Beacon Staff • December 12, 2007

When it comes to music biopics, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. In Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, director Jake Kasdan targets the trite formula by mercilessly mocking the story of the Southern boy turned international rock legend through humorous songs and wild comedy.

With a script co-written by Kasdan and Judd Apatow (writer/director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), the movie traces Cox's life beginning with his traumatic childhood in rural Alabama. After accidentally cutting his brother in half, Dewey miraculously gains musical skills and rockets to fame after recording his first single, the movie's title track. Through subsequent drug-induced downfalls and his eventual reclamation of his fame, Walk Hard manages to poke fun at every musical clicheacute; seen on film. From losing his ability to smell-a subtle poke at other musicians who are missing basic senses-to multiple stays in rehab to wives, ex-wives and twenty children named Dewey, the result is consistently silly and full of memorable one-liners.

Playing Dewey from the age of 13 to his late 60s, John C. Reilly fully becomes the character and maneuvers him through his career as he emulates Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and other influential musicians of the twentieth century. Part of the humor of the film is seeing him transform over the years, from the leader of the Dewey Clark Five beside actual teenagers, through the excesses of 1970s disco, and eventually as a senior citizen selling sausage on television. In a conference call with The Beacon, Reilly explained why playing such a na've and erratically comical character was fulfilling.

"Even though he made bad decisions as he went along, he always has this kind of goofy optimism," he said. "He wouldn't let himself get too down, he'd just move on to the next phase."

In creating the different phases in Cox's life, so much of the storytelling came from the music itself; the title track, for example, is reminiscent of early Johnny Cash. Reilly's performance captures the intensity of the struggling musician's lifestyle while still making fun of the songwriting process and maintaining Dewey's oblivion to the real world of rock and roll. He attributes this connection with the character to his early involvement in the project.

"Jake and Judd immediately started to engage me about what I thought would be cool moments in a musician's life and also what I thought would be my strengths in playing the character," he said.

After a successful comedic turn in Talladega Nights and an Oscar nomination for his singing and acting in Chicago, it seems that Dewey Cox is the lead role Reilly has been preparing to nail throughout his entire career. Because Walk Hard combines the dramatic elements of Cox's jail time and rehab stints with the farcical comedy of life as a rock star, Reilly tapped into many of his past roles to make this character unique.

"I would try to play the scene as emotionally honest as I could, but then suddenly, in that scene, I take PCP and run out in my underwear," he said. The quick changes from seriously dramatic to outrageously funny made Dewey an interesting and unusual character to play.

The duality of the role is also present in many of the song lyrics, especially in the Dylan-esqe protest song "Let Me Hold You, Little Man," which involves Dewey serenading a crowd of little people and fighting for their equality. His naiveteacute; combined with the excesses of rock stardom often leads to outrageous results, from bigamy to dropping acid with the Beatles. However, instead of focusing on this serious subject matter, the script highlights Dewey's confusion and lack of awareness of his actions, making the plot much lighter. Reilly captures this surprising innocence so well that the audience laughs and cheers for him instead of being disgraced by his actions.

Although the film depends on Reilly's over-the-top portrayal of the singer, the supporting cast is equally accomplished and entertaining. Jenna Fischer (The Office) plays Cox's longtime love and backup singer, Darlene, with enough patience to withstand Dewey's wild side for decades and still maintain her sense of humor as she actively pursues her man. As Cox's teenage bride, Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live plays the constantly reproducing Edith with hysterical desperation while SNL alums Chris Parnell and Tim Meadows complete Dewey's band as an unrequited lover and a drug abuser, respectively. With the improvised style of the film, each character stands out and plays off each other in consistently funny ways.

This being a Judd Apatow production, many familiar faces show up throughout the film. Jonah Hill from Superbad plays the ghost of Dewey's brother Nate, while Paul Rudd plays John Lennon alongside Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long as the other Beatles. Whether the actors resemble or even mimic the Fab Four is questionable, but the acid-induced cartoon based on "Yellow Submarine" and the over-exaggerated Liverpool accents are just ridiculous enough to convince the audience.

If there is a problem with Walk Hard, it is the repeated jokes that feel inserted as a means of killing time. Dewey's shock at discovering his drummer getting high in the bathroom is funny once, but with each new drug he tries, the joke becomes increasingly stale.

The high points are the performances, not only for the quality of the music, but also for the sheer hilarity of the lyrics. When Reilly and Jenna Fisher sing the line "Let's duet . in ways that make us feel good," they combine the sexual innuendo, already littered throughout the film, with a musical pun on top of a catchy melody.

Although a movie combining elements of physical comedy, tragic disabilities and rock music might result in the outrageous fusion of This Is Spinal Tap, A Hard Day's Night and Walk the Line, Walk Hard manages to stand out among other holiday music movies by keeping the jokes quick, poking fun at clicheacute; plot elements, and staying true to the music at the core of it all.