I began the My Year Of Flops project in January of 2007 with only the best intentions. I came not to bury flops, but to praise them. I was going to use this column to fight the knee-jerk "Everything sucks"-ism plaguing pop culture like a malignant tumor, and nobly defend the unfairly maligned and glibly discarded. More than anything, I was going to overpower my way into readers' hearts through the sheer quantity, if not quality, of my words.
Yet somewhere along the journey, a column designed to defend failed movies became a forum to attack them. Granted, I've had great fun resurrecting the likes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Paint Your Wagon just so I could bury them all over again. But I can't help feeling like something has been lost. With that in mind, I'm going to cheat a bit in today's column by writing about a movie that, while a big flop commercially, got mixed-to-good reviews and shows every sign of attracting at least a modest cult following: 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
The film marked a rare commercial misfire for writer-producer Judd Apatow. For the last few years, Apatow has reigned as the King Midas of comedy, a kingmaker who transformed the doughy, stony likes of Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen into movie stars and produced or directed a formidable string of big hits: Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Legend Of Ricky Bobby, Knocked Up, Superbad, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Of course, you can't have that kind of massive, sustained success without engendering resentment in the process. Accordingly, the A.V. Club message boards have been flooded with bile and invective by Apatow-haters convinced that, like a slacker Dr. Caligari, he's nothing more than a charismatic charlatan who uses his lumpy Hebraic charm to hypnotize critics and audiences into loving his films and thinking that people like Steve Carell or Paul Rudd are somehow talented or likeable.
I can understand some of the backlash. Apatow's films don't always have the world's most progressive gender politics, though I would argue that Linda Cardinelli's Freaks And Geeks protagonist is one of the best-written, most complex female characters in television history. I liked Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the most part, but thought it was three or four drafts away from being as tight or good as it could have been. And while Apatow has enormous affection for his characters, that affection isn't exactly distributed equally between genders. Furthermore, the whole awkward-man-child-stumbling-toward-maturity template is starting feel a little formulaic.
But I nevertheless think that Apatow's success is justly deserved. He cut his teeth on some of the best television shows of the past 20 years (Freaks And Geeks, The Ben Stiller Show, The Critic, The Larry Sanders Show, Undeclared) before creating a galaxy of comedy stars (Carell, Rudd, Hill, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Romany Malco) who became famous by virtue of being talented, likeable, gifted improvisers rather than pretty and lucky.
If Apatow is a comedy superman, then I'm afraid Jake Kasdan is, commercially at least, his Kryptonite. (How's that for a cheesy metaphor?) Which is a goddamned shame, because Kasdan directed two of the best, most underrated comedies of last year, the low-key, pitch-perfect show-biz satire The TV Set, and Walk Hard. It would be hard to imagine comedies with more divergent tones and sensibilities, yet Kasdan did an equally masterful job with both of them.
After the low-key, inside-baseball understatement of The TV Set, Walk Hard must have looked like a sure thing, commercially. In the weeks leading up to its release, Walk Hard flooded the national consciousness. Yet audiences weren't buying it. The film died a quick death at the box office, grossing a mere $18 million domestically, a little over half its modest $35 million budget.
It didn't help that two of the film's worst jokes were in the film's smirky, double-entendre-laden title, which could have been dreamed up by a pair of Red Bull-addled 13-year-olds. As longtime readers know, I find nothing more deplorable than dick jokes. So I can understand why people might resent Kasdan and Apatow trying to shove their big, long Cox down audiences' throats.
But as for me, hell, I was won over before I watched a single frame. I ripped the Walk Hard soundtrack on my computer-box and was astonished at how well the songs held up outside the context of the film. I came for the jokes, but I stayed for the rock-solid pop craftsmanship. The pastiche is an art form unto itself, and it's an art form at which Walk Hard excels. If I may wax heretical for a moment, when the intro to "Starman" kicked in on my iPod, I sometimes wound up hoping it was Dewey Cox's version, not David Bowie's. I was a fan of Dewey Cox's music before I ever had a chance to know the man behind it.
Walk Hard opens with a long tracking shot as a stagehand looks for Dewey Cox and finds him in an iconic pose of self-reflection. "You're going to have to give him a moment, son. Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays," Tim Meadows' wise sideman explains. We then flash back to Cox's idyllic/traumatic Alabama childhood, amid sun-dappled scenes where the young, pint-sized Cox revels in historical irony with his soon-to-be-deceased older brother.
"When I grow up, I'm going to be a great composer and a professional baseball player. Then I'm going to be an astronaut and go to the moon. There's nothing I won't do in this long, long life of mine. That's what great about being young: There's so much time to do great things!" Cox's brother gushes as his few remaining hours tick away. Innocent childhood pastimes like rattlesnake-taunting, horse-vs.-tractor chicken, bull-provoking, and impromptu welding ensue, but before long, the giddy afternoon takes a dangerous turn. Li'l Dewey is challenged to a machete fight and ends up cutting his brother in half "pretty bad." With his dying breath, Dewey's brother makes him promise to be "double-great—for the both of us."
In the aftermath of his brother's death, our traumatized hero goes "smell-blind," a goofy riff on Ray Charles' blindness and one of the few comic conceits in the film that just doesn't work.
We then jump forward to the Springberry High School talent show, where a 14-year-old Cox (incongruously played by John C. Reilly) towers over his ostensible peers. For Kasdan and Apatow, having a clearly middle-aged man play someone decades younger than himself is the basis for a clever sight gag. For Kevin Spacey, it's the basis for the entirety of Beyond The Sea.
Before long, Reilly heads out on his own and scores a job at a black nightclub sweeping floors, and he watches, with open-mouthed admiration, lascivious dancing that could easily be mistaken for a clothed orgy. The scene is meant to parallel a segment from the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls Of Fire.
Actually, Great Balls Of Fire has a great deal in common with Walk Hard. Balls was a huge critical and commercial flop upon its 1989 release, but time has been kind to it. As a realistic drama about Lewis' life, it's an unmistakable failure, largely because it has zero interest in being a realistic drama about Lewis' life. Critics and audiences were judging it by the wrong criteria; you can't fault a no-hitter for not also being a five-touchdown game.
Since Lewis is a real person, audiences understandably expected a biopic with at least some basis in reality. Instead, director Jim McBride—who earlier paid homage to the Killer by making Richard Gere's narcissistic dreamer a huge Jerry Lee Lewis freak in his shockingly kinda-awesome remake of Breathless—uses Lewis' legend as the springboard for a pop-art cartoon take on the '50s, with a never-better Quaid playing Lewis as a cross between a strutting comic-strip rooster and a human version of Tex Avery's Big Bad Wolf. If you enjoy laughter, joy, great music, and things that are awesome, I cannot recommend a Cox/Balls double feature highly enough. Just tell all your friends that you love Cox and Balls and that you want to share your love with them. They certainly won't all look at you like you're insane or nothing.
But back to the matter at hand: when the nightclub's headliner can't go on Reilly takes his place, imitating him right down to his slangy, Ebonics-filled stage banter. From there it's a quick rocket ride to the top. The below scene brilliantly spoofs the way rock and roll movies transform the messy, complicated shapelessness of real life to a series of giddy climaxes and melodramatic triumphs, an endless, often montage-filled, succession of Big Moments and Agonizing Lows.
Kristin Wiig, a funny actress who specializes in playing gratingly unfunny characters on Saturday Night Live, is perfect as Reilly's archetypal tossed-aside first wife, a baby-making killjoy whose lack of belief in her husband never wavers, no matter how successful he becomes.
Reilly's always-wavering bond with the ball and chain comes undone the moment he first makes goo goo eyes at back-up singer Jenna Fischer as a sexily innocent and innocently sexy June Carter Cash surrogate. Their chemistry is explosive and instantaneous; when they sing "Let's Duet" together they gaze adoringly into each other's eyes, lost in their own private rapture.
If played broadly or smuttily, the endless stream of winking double entendres in "Let's Duet" could easily come across as crass and unfunny. But Fischer plays it sweet and coquettish. It's as if she has no idea that a lyric like "You can always come in my backdoor," could ever be construed as anything other than an invitation to climb up the rear porch and join her for a wholesome glass of lemonade. The overall effect is sweet and romantic, not crude. It's a dumb, leering joke smartly executed, not to mention just a beautiful fucking song.
(Incidentally, the original title for Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling," a likely inspiration for "Let's Duet," was "My Big Black Monster Cock." It originally had a lot fewer double entendres and a lot more single ones. Apparently the label found the original title a little too threatening. Not quite as threatening as Berry's actual cock, but threatening all the same.)
Like "Let's Duet" Walk Hard is blessed with a fundamental sweetness and a loving attention to detail. It cares enough to get everything right, to lavish attention on production design and costumes and making sure that the songs linger in the memory long after audiences have left the theater. That's part of what puts early Mel Brooks and Edgar Wright and Walk Hard on a higher evolutionary plane than the Date Movies of the world. Love. Walk Hard loves its characters and loves early rock and roll and Pet Sounds and Johnny Cash and everything it's simultaneously mocking and paying reverent homage to. It even loves the rock and roll movie clichés it adroitly satirizes. And oh sweet blessed Lord, does the rock and roll movie ever give the filmmakers a rich cornucopia of shameless conventions and constantly recycled tropes to satirize.
Walk Hard cycles its weak-willed protagonist through just about every trend in popular music. He moves steadily from a Johnny Cash-style rock and roll hellcat to an amusingly misguided, Dylanesque folk-rock troubadour to a Brian Wilson-style sonic space cadet to a '70s style show-biz disco phony with a Simpsons Family Smile Time Variety Hour-style variety show and finally to a rock elder statesman at peace with himself and his legacy.
Along the way the film also offers perhaps the most convincing defense of pot ever put to film.
In Walk Hard, Reilly has an almost impossibly demanding role. He ages decades. He runs the entire spectrum of emotions, from wrenching despair to ecstatic joy. He constantly does selfish, self-destructive things yet remains enormously likable. He's called upon to sing in pretty much every genre while remaining in character. In the film's universally strong songs he's burdened with simultaneously selling the jokes—in "Let's Duet" the humor comes as much from timing as the lyrics—and the songs themselves. He does an absolutely magnificent job.
Reilly is alternated cursed and blessed to look like a giant, mentally challenged baby. What are pop stars, ultimately, if not mentally challenged babies? (Well, other than that guy from Creed. I'm pretty sure he's an unfrozen caveman.) Like infants, pop stars are pampered and cradled, adored and doted upon, forgiven for their rages and rewarded disproportionately for their small acts of kindness and benevolence. They're both rampaging Ids that spend much of their time soiling themselves and suckling hungrily at breasts. Is it any wonder rock stars aren't exactly in a hurry to grow up and accept the compromises of adulthood and responsibility?
One of Reilly's defining characteristics as an actor is completely emotional transparency wedded to absolute conviction. He keeps nothing hidden; his wildly expressive face reveals everything. That makes him perfect for this role, since Cox is incapable of keeping secrets or controlling his impulses. He's a Teflon sinner. He's such an overgrown little boy that it's hard to hold his misdeeds against him.
As I wrote earlier, Apatow became a cinematic force making bittersweet comedies about affable man-children stumbling towards maturity. Walk Hard offers a goofy pop-culture-crazed variation on that resonant theme. The film's ultimate triumph is that it makes audiences genuinely care about a ridiculous rock and roll cartoon who's Johnny Cash and Ray Charles and Bob Dylan and Glen Campbell and a giant, mentally challenged baby all wrapped up into a big ball of ridiculousness. Watching Walk Hard at the Brew & View, a Chicago venue that has a movie screen and a liquor license, I actually found myself getting a little choked up at the climactic performance of "Beautiful Ride." The lyrics are pure nostalgic clichés. But if the glorious, absurd, unkillable history of rock and roll movies have taught us anything, it's that that, in the right performer's hands, a silly amalgamation of clichés can be downright transcendent.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Double-Great Secret Success