Oh, I needed that. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a surreal comedy that reminds us of the simple joy of parody. At times demented while at others surprisingly sweet, the movie never feels as if it overstaying its welcome.
Jake Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with Judd Apatow, somehow pulls off the neat hat trick of playing it straight but never so straight that we become bored or roll our eyes. The problem with so many parodies of late is that they are at best strewn together with gags and jokes that cite the source material as opposed to saying anything about the joke or the material itself. Walk Hard harkens back to movies like Airplane! and Blazing Saddles so much that the movie is merciless in its potshots but clearly tender in its affections for the genre.
The movie starts off with a stagehand looking for Dewey Cox (John C. Riley). He’s due to go on at any minute. The stressed-out stagehand finds him, in the shadows, leaning against the wall. Before he can get his attention, he’s stopped by Sam (Tim Meadows). “You’re going to have to give him a moment, son. Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.”
So many biopics start off at the end of someone’s life, usually just before they are about to receive an award or honor, before flashing back to the past when the character was younger. It’s not bad storytelling, it’s just been done to literal death. Walk Hard so thoroughly rips apart the tropes and cliches of biopics that it’s a wonder anyone could ever make another formulaic one ever again.
The YouTuber Patrick H. Willems has already done a magnificent video on this subject. So, I won’t talk too much about it. Suffice to say it is remarkable that at times Walk Hard does scenes that eerily resemble the ones in Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody better and with more heart than Bohemian Rhapsody.
Honestly Walk Hard is just funny. Consistently funny and brazenly unafraid to keep poking at a joke for repeated results. One of the cliches the movie pricks at is the piece of dialogue the main character hears as a child that either follows him through his life or which he comes to realize the true meaning of at the end. “The wrong kid died.”
Except, the joke isn’t just funny because it’s morbid. It’s because it’s directly tied to the defining incident of Dewey’s life. The death of his older, more talented brother at Dewey’s own hands. He chopped him in half with a machete, by accident of course. This may seem like common sense but so many comedies focus so much on the joke they forget the basic principles of having something underneath to carry the joke. “The wrong kid died” is hilarious but somehow only grows funnier each time Dewey’s Pa (Raymond J. Barry) utters it in his gravelly voice thick with disdain and bitterness.
Kasdan stacks Walk Hard with talent in even the smallest roles. Ma is played by national treasure Margo Martindale. The legendary Harold Ramis is almost unrecognizable as the Hasidic Jew L’Chaim, who discovers Dewey at an all African American club substituting for Craig Robinson’s Bobby Shad.
Jokes like that are shrewdly peppered in throughout Walk Hard. Such as when Dewey releases his single “Guilty as Charged,” clearly a riff of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” with two mariachi trumpets accompanying him on the track. But that’s the other thing about Walk Hard, the songs are actually good.
Or at the very least believable. The songs in Walk Hard are jokes, yes, but they sound and play like the music you could hear on the radio. Much like Tom Hanks That Thing You Do, the music is catchy and actually behaves as a song should. Again, Walk Hard works because despite moments like Dewey shouting out, “Goddam*it this is a dark fu*king period,” the movie never winks at you. It has a plot and character arcs that push the movie forward.
So many movies like Walk Hard only have jokes and nothing more. Except a movie without character or story is merely an overly long sketch that will begin to wear thin pretty quickly. Kasdan and Apatow make sure to at all times try and connect the jokes to the plot, and while they are satirizing, they are also using the same trick and tropes they are poking fun at.
Kasdan and Apatow aren’t making fun of biopics. They’re making fun of the laziness and the cookie-cutter way in which they are made. More and more biopics seem to be put together on an assembly line with the end result feeling like a product rather than a story.
After getting clean, for all great tragic figures must go through periods of addiction and sobriety, Dewy finds himself in India with “The Beatles.” The characters talk in weird inorganic ways clearly more interested in making sure everyone knows who they are as opposed to trying to explore the point in Dewey’s life. “What do you think, George Harrison, of The Beatles?”
Of course, no biopic would be complete without the first and second wife of our hero. Dewey’s first wife is Edith (Kristen Wigg) “I’m fourteen years old and I’m getting married!” At first, she is supportive but soon she demands Dewy be practical. One of the running gags involves how Edith seems to either be holding a newborn baby or is pregnant again while holding a newborn baby.
Dewey and Edith also have their big marriage ending fight that has Edith taking her brood and leaving while Dewey begs her to stay. “I cheated. Guilty as charged.” He gets a glint in his eyes and begins to sing “Guilty as charged.” “Don’t you dare write a song right now, Dewey!”
Jenna Fischer is Darlene, the good Christian woman who finds herself drawn to Dewey’s strange, wild magnetism. Fischer and Riley have a strong romantic chemistry. The sexual attraction seems palpable in a way so many romances in biopics, or heck even romcoms, do not.
Comedies are hard to review because it grows tiresome to read, “I laughed a lot.” Or worse, “I laughed here, here, here, and here.” Well, I did laugh a lot. Though I must confess I needed it.
The scene where Dewey, old and wizened, turns down Sam’s offer of another drug, only to walk past the literal “Temptations,” and screams, “Ah! The Temptations,” nearly killed me. I am but a simple man.
Most comedies have large swaths of dead spots. We forgive them because the parts that are funny makeup for the parts that are not. Walk Hard has little to no dead spots.
Critics often say there’s no such thing as a perfect movie and to a large extent, that’s true. While I agree with that in theory, it’s limited. There are a few movies that I think are completely perfect, but they’re perfect in the sense that the scenes are exactly where they are supposed to be and end when they are supposed to. They’re perfect in the sense that you couldn’t imagine the movie being any other way, flaws and all.
Walk Hard is about as perfect a satire, comedy, or movie as I’ve seen in a long while. The songs are catchy and the comedy is funny. More to the point, it is a movie that walks such a thin line without breaking so much as a sweat. An impressive feat considering the wrong kid died.
Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures