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Though it spans seven decades and spends little time in this one, Walk Hard is very much a product of 2007. It doesn’t fall for the easy, instantly dated pop culture references of lesser parodies, nor is its story particularly timely, but its entire existence is owed to the rise of one man: Judd Apatow, the new King of Hollywood Comedy.
Apatow, a screenwriter and producer here, shepherded the project through production, and is reunited with his Freaks & Geeks collaborator, director Jake Kasdan. Flexing his newfound power, he has assembled a larger-than-usual gang of conspirators, making about 50% of Walk Hard’s fun simply guessing who that is under the bad 60s wig. From Knocked Up there’s Paul Rudd, Martin Starr and Jonah Hill; Jane Lynch from The 40-Year Old Virgin stops by; from SNL we have Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and Kristen Wiig in major roles; and hey, is that Jack White?
This isn’t to say that Walk Hard is nothing without its cameos. Abundantly silly, Walk Hard never aspires to be anything but a laugh-a-minute parody, but it’s a reminder of what parodies can be when done with a fraction of thought and skill. Apatow’s work has often been compared to the raunch comedies of the 80s, but here, with Kasdan, he’s made something closer to--though perhaps not as immortal as-- Airplane!. In a fall season crammed with grim and depressing movies, abundantly silly may be exactly what we need.
Stepping into his first-ever starring role is John C. Reilly, playing the music icon Dewey Cox from his high school band at age 14 to his Lifetime Achievement Award concert at 72. Dewey’s story is predictable, and predictably over-the-top: a childhood accident puts a rift between Dewey and his father; he marries young and struggles to support his enormous family until his big break comes. There’s an affair and a second marriage, a litany of drugs and bad haircuts, and one hit after another. After no fewer than two stints in rehab and prison--each--Dewey finally heads to the path of righteousness, settling down with his dozens of children and his backup singer (Jenna Fischer) until he comes back for one final, triumphant, life-concluding performance.
Walk Hard borrows most liberally from Walk the Line, from Dewey’s hardscrabble Southern childhood and the early death of a sibling to its title track (there are over 20 original songs in the film, all performed by Reilly, and all surprisingly great). But Kasdan and Apatow aren’t afraid to venture out to other rock icons. Sorry, Todd Haynes, but you’re not the only one doing a Don’t Look Back homage this fall featuring an actor doing a pitch-perfect Dylan imitation (now begins the lobbying for a Reilly-as-Dylan and Cate Blanchett-as-Dylan duet at the Oscars).
The movie takes aim at many of the familiar tropes of the biopic genre, with characters constantly stating out loud dates and locations (“Stop fighting here in India, Beatles!”) and every dramatic moment featuring insanely overdone behavior (Dewey climbs a flagpole in his underwear, habitually rips sinks out of walls, and eventually saws a sofa in half). Not all of the jokes hit, but there’s so many of them that the movie never really loses its momentum.
Reilly, an accomplished dramatic actor, really is the only man for this part. He never smirks at the audience or lets himself in on the joke, the way Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn might, and takes this ridiculous character and makes him into something of a real person. He’s supported by a huge, talented cast; band mates Parnell and Meadows are entirely along for the ride, while Wiig makes a hysterical impression as Dewey’s first wife. Fischer is pretty and game as second wife Darlene, but as with many of Apatow’s movies, this is mostly a boys club.
Walk Hard is nothing like what we’ve come to think of as “a Judd Apatow movie,” especially for one that he’s written, but his sure comedic hand is felt throughout the entire film. Making parodies can be easy, but Kasdan, Apatow and their wonderful cast take their jobs seriously, earning their laughs and creating a consistent, if consistently ridiculous, world.