movie reviews

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Directed by Jake Kasdan, Produced by Judd Apatow. Starring John C. Reilly, Raymond J. Barry, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Jenna Fischer, and cameos by an assortment of Judd Apatow regulars.

Capsule verdict: Disappointing misfire, eliciting a smattering of chuckles at best.

Ten minutes into the movie, nobody in the audience had laughed yet. Full crowd, too. Probably full of people who have seen the other two Judd Apatow movies this year, Knocked Up and Superbad. Maybe even people who saw and liked Talladega Nights and Anchorman and The 40 Year Old Virgin, which all have more or less the same pedigree as well as cast. There were jokes, but nobody was laughing.

They were a peculiar, particular kind of joke. It was sort of the joke style for the whole movie, so if you didn’t like that kind of joke, you weren’t in for a treat. I spent a lot of time engaged by the mental exercise of trying to nail down what this kind of joke was so that I could write about it later. It’s a kind of joke writing that felt really familiar — that I knew from somewhere else, but not movies, exactly. What was it? I had a lot of time to think, and the audience was nice and quiet, which was conducive to long stretches of rumination.

About an hour and 15 minutes in, I laughed out loud, surprising myself. It was the last joke in a montage of not very funny shots of Dewey Cox (whose name was chosen to be funny, but never quite is) destroying things in his house because he’s feeling very emotional. It was the one joke that got a laugh, and I’m not sure why, and that was just as fascinating — although I can tell you it was a different type of joke. It was a sort of truthful human moment that slipped in by accident into the contrived script. Having overturned his piano, sawn his sofa in half, broken his sinks, smashed his guitars, Dewey doggedly keeps destroying everything he can, finally having to settle for smaller and pettier acts of destruction, grabbing spoons out of his drawer and bending them. “Rrrr!” he says, bending a spoon. He grabs another. “Rrr!” he bends that one. There’s a dissolve, showing some amount of time has passed. He’s seeing through his intention to the bitter end, looking a little fatigued by the tedium of it, but he’s clearly bending every last spoon he owns. He sighs instead of growling as he bends another spoon.

As stupid as that is, that’s what I laughed at, in this whole idiotic movie. Somehow that moment looked like actual human behavior. Exaggerated for comic effect, but yes — sometimes you get wound up and commit to some silly course of action, and the emotion that prompted it runs out but there you are, still seeing it through, just because. So I recognized something of my own foibles in that, and so I laughed.

Now the rest of the movie, I finally figured out, is written in an internet style of making fun of things. It’s a lazy form of satire, a style I think is really weak and never find funny. In fact, I maintain an active dislike of it and make gripey noises when people foist URLs on me. But it gets traded around and is popular in its own way, probably because it’s easy to write. Non-writers can write it. You just have to be snide and obvious.

It is usually found in fake-script form, making fun of movies. It is thus a written form of humor, and I can’t recall having seen this kind of material actually made into a movie, let alone by professionals (as opposed to some sort of youtube skit).

Allow me to contrive an example. Suppose you wanted to make fun of Spider-Man movies. You would write something like this:

Peter Porker is talking to his Uncle Joe.

PETER: Hey aged father figure that I'm too self-absorbed to listen to, I need to go exploit my secret super pow-- I mean, uh, I have to study at the library. Yeah.

UNCLE: Just a second Peter. Now as an aged father figure to
you I need to tell you something important.

PETER: (not listening) Yeah yeah whatever.

UNCLE: Hold on sport. In case I suddenly die and the last thing I tell you becomes suddenly poignant, you better listen.

PETER: What, are you going to tell me that with great power comes great responsibility or something?

UNCLE JOE is suddenly killed by a crook!

PETER: Nooo, Uncle Joe! If only I'd listened, and now it's all my fault and I'll be haunted by your last words forever!

Okay, you get that? You’ve seen that, right? That style of comedy? It’s almost like watered down 1970s MAD magazine writing, now that I think about it. It seems juvenile and uninspired to me. It’s like notes for jokes, placeholders where actual jokes should be, without actually being funny. Well, Walk Hard is about 85% made up of scenes that are written like that. Yes, literally, just like that. The remainder is songs written in various styles, but which also aren’t funny.

And through it all, they neglected to make it actually hang together like a real movie. It wanders, getting lost in the 1950s for quite a long time, before rushing through the 60s and 70s and skipping the 80s entirely. Strange, since if the conceit is that Dewey Cox lived through all of these musical eras, you could get a lot out of doing an 80s pastiche, but it’s like it didn’t even occur to them to do that. There’s one moment earlier when somehow Dewey starts to get addicted to cocaine, but way too early, like in the late 50s or maybe early 60s, and they nearly make a joke about him inventing punk rock, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and doesn’t make any sense. Then by the time they get to 1978 they don’t even have any more music ideas for their musical lead character, and have him doing Sonny & Cher-style variety television.

That reminds me of another complaint. It’s like they didn’t bother to do any research about any of the eras they were going through. Oh, I guess the costume department did. It seems like they missed a lot of opportunity for comedy by not knowing enough about anything to actually mine it for humor. The Beatles show up in a cameo that seems to be written by, and for, people who have never seen the Beatles before, just heard other people referencing them second or third hand. They bring on the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly and I was sure they were going to go for a joke about Dewey Cox failing to get on a plane with them after the show because of some amusing reason, but they didn’t do that. Instead they end the scene with a guy doing a cliché parody of 1970s Elvis while dressed as 1956 Elvis, throwing karate chops and calling himself The King. I dunno, is that the joke, that 1956 Elvis would act like 1976 Elvis? Maybe they thought that was funny.

I am completely mystified insulted by the casting of Jack Black as Paul McCartney.

Geek pedant complaint: So Dewey complains to his manager that his variety show is getting trounced in the ratings every week by The Incredible Hulk. Okay, that works if it’s 1978. Then they talk about a supposed recent episode of Hulk, where he has an evil twin who’s red instead of green. There’s no such episode, so is that the joke? They made up an evil twin episode that doesn’t exist. Did somebody sitting there typing the script think that was funny for some reason? Suppose they assume most people in the audience won’t know that there wasn’t an episode like that. Is that why it’s funny? Anyway, they talk about helping the ratings by plugging the variety show on a news interview, and Dewey practices saying that it comes on “Thursday evenings, right after the local news.” That’s my geek pedant complaint: Hulk was on Friday nights for its entire run. You know, right before The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas.

There’s no point in them actually researching when Hulk was on, since it doesn’t make it any more funny to get it right. But why get it wrong? I really don’t see why they couldn’t look it up and write Friday into the script instead of Thursday. It’d take 20 seconds. It just seems lazy. They didn’t look up anything, they didn’t think through anything. How can you be funny when you’re just faffing around like this?

It seems, ultimately, like they had an idea for a movie. And they thought that was enough to get started. Lots of wheels to get spinning to do a movie like this. You have to write a bunch of songs, pre-record them. You have to get all those period costumes made. You have to order some Yellow Submarine-type animation. It’s like they were so focused on all this business that they went into production with a first draft. One with lots of ideas for scenes but no actual scenes. Lots of ideas for jokes but no actual jokes. Or jokes that exist just to narrate themselves.

Very weird. I remember I had trouble with Anchorman too, for what seemed like different reasons at the time, but I think underneath there is a related problem. However, that movie was way funnier than this, and I think it’s because of Will Farrell being able to riff while the cameras are rolling and make things funnier. I’m not a really big Will Farrell fan, but I recognize that he has this ability to funny things up.

I couldn’t help but think the entire time that they wanted Farrell to play Dewey Cox, and he either couldn’t do it because of other commitments, or he was wise enough to turn it down. Or, he said to them, “Hey, get Reilly to do it. He was hilarious in Talladega Nights. He’s your man.” So they said, yeah, Reilly’s a hell of an actor, and he’s funny, too, and he can sing. So we’ll do that, it’ll be great.

Only it’s not great. And as flabby and pasty as he is, he’s not funny running around in tighty whities the way Will Farrell is.

Oh yeah, about a half hour in, a completely naked woman walks across the screen. It wasn’t funny, but it was pleasantly distracting. Then they showed a giant close-up of a penis. Twice. Three times if you count the recapping montage at the end of the movie. I think they thought that was funny, too, and I guess from a certain perspective it is.

Cox. Get it?

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