Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/27/07 12:42:19

4 stars (Worth A Look)

Have you heard the news? The death of country rock legend Dewey Cox earlier this year left a gaping hole in the entertainment world; we had lost our hardest walker forever. Now Hollywood has come to pay tribute to the Chameleon the best way it knows how: with an epic, awards-seeking biopic covering every milestone in the artist’s life. Especially the Dark Period.

And few musicians had Dark Periods, in quality or quantity, like Cox. Inspired to take up the blues after accidentally cutting his brother in half during a machete fight, Cox later found rock and roll, only to be kicked out of the house at age fourteen for singing “the devil’s music.” Even when later success came easy, Cox became addicted to a myriad of drugs, winding up in rehab more times than anyone can count. His two marriages stumbled, he lost touch with his children, his band left him at the height of his drug-induced frenzy. Dark Periods, indeed.

But, as the makers of “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” remind us, he also did more living than most of us put together. He wowed audiences alongside Elvis and Buddy Holly. He dropped acid with the Beatles in India. He hosted his own variety show. He fought for the rights of those who could not sing for themselves. And he won the Lifetime Achievement Award.

All of this you already know, and yet “Walk Hard” presents it all with startlingly fresh eyes. This is a glorious tribute to the Shape-Shifter, a film that captures all the clichés of the musical biopic, then rises above them. “Walk Hard” hits all the same emotional beats as, say, “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” but it adds its own special touch, elevating beyond the genre. This is a heartbreaking drama bound to be remembered come Oscar night.

Most Oscar-worthy of all is how “Walk Hard” takes so many gifted comedians and manages to find their dramatic sides. This is nothing new, of course - Jamie Foxx earned a pile of statuettes for abandoning his comic roots in order to play Ray Charles; the tradition goes all the way back to the hilarious Paul Muni, who won an Oscar for finally going serious with “The Story of Louis Pasteur” - but “Walk Hard” multiplies this trick. It seems everyone here, from cast to crew, is a comedy veteran. Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan is best known for his indie laffers “Zero Effect” and “The TV Set,” while his co-writer/producer Judd Apatow made this year’s hit comedy “Knocked Up.” Supporting players include several veterans of “Saturday Night Live,” all of whom turn in Oscar-worthy dramatic performances, as does Jenna Fischer, the young actress perhaps best known for her two-episode stint on Apatow’s sitcom “Undeclared.” Fischer’s makeup-enhanced transformation from the teenage Darlene Madison to the elder Darlene Madison Cox is the stuff of award show history and is everything a fully realized dramatic performance in a musical biopic should be: sincere acting with heavy makeup showing how old she’s become.

Deserving much more awards is John C. Reilly, whose physical resemblance to Cox is uncanny. The cherubic comic star is perhaps known best for how often throughout his career he’s moved away from humor to tackle serious roles (the Academy finally took notice, nominating his fine performance in “Chicago”), and here, he tackles his most serious yet. Reilly is so very sincere in this role of a lifetime, finding the tenderness and deep emotion in every scene.

It is, of course, an Oscar-worthy performance all the way, but not simply for the quality of his dramatics. No, Reilly deserves top honors for pure mimicry. For not only does Reilly look exactly like Dewey Cox (thanks in part to an Oscar-worthy makeup crew), but he sounds just like him, too. If they gave Oscars to actors who are able to credibly mimic real-life people (that’s what the Oscars are there for in the first place, right?), Reilly’s spot-on recreations of Cox’s best-known songs would guarantee him a trophy. Or, fingers crossed, two!

Reilly, who refused to lip-synch for his role, is remarkable in breathing new, familiar life to the Cox catalogue. Hearing Reilly tear into classics like “Guilty As Charged,” “You Got To Love Your Negro Man,” “Beautiful Ride,” and, of course, “Walk Hard” is just like listening to Dewey himself. Here, Reilly out-Joaquin Phoenixes Joaquin Phoenix. Simply put, Reilly is Cox. He’s lot of Cox. John C. Reilly is a giant pile of Cox.

And yes, he is Oscar-worthy. Or, at least, Golden Globes-worthy.

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