Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Dir. Jake Kasdan
Premiered December 21, 2007

2007 was a big year for me. On March 27, I started keeping a journal after being caught in a tornado. On May 13, I created an online persona called “Monty Park” in a failed attempt to force my high school’s film club to help me produce a mockumentary of the same name– a fortuitous choice, as I became quite popular in my senior year when the WGA strike in the fall and winter made my YouTube videos a major source of entertainment– they’re all gone now. The same strike coincided with the sudden rise of television as a critically respectable artform on par with film; it wasn’t just a good year for movies, and that new climate inspired me to want to be a television writer. Soon after, I became an Eagle Scout. On December 18, I turned 18, registered for the draft, and registered to vote. Three days later, I belatedly celebrated my birthday by going alone to what is now the ArcLight Pasadena, seeing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and leaving disappointed.

My biggest regret from 2007, aside from getting banned from Starbucks, waiting too long to ask Justine Tran to the winter formal, and other general acts of cowardice and self-absorption with regard to the opposite sex, is not seeing more movies in the theater. My all-time favorite movie came out that year and I didn’t see it. I only saw eight films, which is still a high number for me, and the last of which was this movie.

My memory of seeing it is quite clear. Most of the jokes from the trailer– the best of them– weren’t in the film; always frustrating occurrence, and one that had led me astray on a previous birthday. At first I thought it was too silly at first, and too sincere at the end. A decade on, however, in a better mood, with a much deeper knowledge of the history of popular music, and with a new and painful familiarity with the 2000s’ particular brand of awards bait, Walk Hard is fucking hilarious.

The story begins at a concert in the present-day, as Dewey (John C. Reilly) looks back on his entire life before coming onto the stage one last time. In 1946, ten-year-old Dewey accidentally cuts his musical virtuouso brother Nate in an old-fashioned machete fight, and despite his father’s bitter insistence that “the wrong kid died,” vows to live the live the life that Nate never could– even though the incident “tragically” robs him of his sense of smell. At fourteen (and already played by John C. Reilly), he’s run out of town when his doo-wop song “Take My Hand” is lambasted as the work of Satan. But he soon becomes a runaway success as his song “Walk Hard” becomes a #1 hit. Soon after, he gets to know almost every major figure in the history of popular music, experiments with every drug the screenwriter could think of, leaves his perpetually pregnant teen bride (Kristen Wiig) for sexpot country singer Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), and suffers one career hurdle after another.

Walk Hard couldn’t have come out at any other time, parodying as it does the trend of middlebrow musician biopics that reached their apex in the 2000s with Ray and Walk the Line. In a year that saw its share of affectionate genre satires, Walk Hard is strikingly unrelenting in its skewering of such films’ attempts to conform a real person’s life into a conventional three-act structure, often by cloyingly linking events in the artist’s life to their work; the way screenwriters kinda grossly exploit the artist’s personal struggles for maximum pathos; the way filmmakers try to score progressive points by ham-fistedly portraying the recent past as harshly as possible; and how they try to link everything into popular historical narratives of the 20th century with questionable relevance. Walk Hard knows the musician biopic game so well that it managed to parody movies that didn’t exist yet, such as Love & Mercy and Get On Up.

But that’s not even the half of it; Walk Hard is endlessly quotable, though it would be pointless to include every great line in this review, as it would be to name every mismatched actor who drops in to play someone famous. Although directed by Jake Kasdan, Walk Hard is an Apatow production, and it’s the only one that justifies Mr. Apatow’s obsession with celebrity cameos. It runs out of steam a little bit after Dewey experiences a Brian Wilson-esque mental breakdown, but only because the first half of the film was outrageously funny while the second half is only reliably so.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Real 1950s groupies definitely had pubes. The ones here did not. No, I’m not letting this go.

Additional Notes
John C. Reilly has an absolutely lovely singing voice. In fact, the film’s original songs meet the Neil Cicierga/Flight of the Conchords standard of funny songs that are also genuinely good.

Please watch the original theatrical cut and not the “unrated” edition, which kills the pace of many of the best jokes.

How Did It Do?
Walk Hard got a pretty-good 74% fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. It was also a box-office bomb, grossing just $20.6 million worldwide against a $35 million budget. And while I’m surprised by quite how badly it did, I get it. Walk Hard failed for the same reason Grindhouse failed: they are movies for movie nerds, people who go to the theater every week but are always outnumbered by the yokels who go maybe five times a year. I have been both of these, so no judgment; Walk Hard isn’t the type of movie that needs to be seen on the big screen for full effect, and I think was Sony was willing to take that loss; it didn’t cost very much, producer Judd Apatow had done extremely well for them that year, and in Hollywood, even corporate executives are generally people who like movies. So it’s hard to feel too bad about its financial disappointment.

It’s also hard to feel bad because the movie keeps on giving. In the decade since Walk Hard’s release, musician biopics have largely failed to evolve beyond the formula that it parodies. This is also why, Straight Outta Compton nonwithstanding, they are much harder for critics and prestige industry groups to take seriously. Hell, Get on Up, a James Brown biopic from 2014, used the same framing device as Walk Hard without a second thought, and got away with it three years ago, but now an generation of critics who were growing up in 2007 have begun writing and they find it impossible not to laugh. Imagine a western made after Blazing Saddles where someone earnestly says “head them off at the pass!” Now imagine 80% of westerns made after Blazing Saddles doing that. That’s what musician biopics are doing now, and it is why Walk Hard remains evergreen.

Next Time: 2007 in Review

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Year of the Dog (2007)

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Year of the Dog
Dir. Mike White
Premiered at Sundance January 20, 2007

Spoiler warning.

Here’s a weird confession: when I was in middle school, my idol was a local screenwriter named Mike White. Like me, White was from Pasadena, and while my hometown wasn’t exactly off the beaten path, it meant a lot to me to see a fellow native succeed in television and film. He was a writer for the terrific TV series Freaks and Geeks as well as the social thriller Chuck & Buck, and first became known to me as the writer of Jake Kasdan’s underrated admissions comedy Orange County, which was briefly my favorite movie. He then moved on to writing School of Rock, Cracking Up, whatever. Inexplicably, he is also one of the credited writers on this year’s The Emoji Movie. You win some, you lose some. Badly.

But until this year, White has only ever directed one film: 2007’s little-seen Year of the Dog. And despite its deeply troublesome flaws, it is very much in keeping with his screenplays. Most of his writing has been about people who take things too far, and in Year of the Dog, that person is Peggy (Molly Shannon), a spinster/office drone whose life falls apart after her beagle Pencil dies from eating something toxic, suspecting that her hunting-enthusiast neighbor (John C. Reilly) is somehow responsible.

Peggy’s efforts to find a new companion lead her into the orbit of ASPCA volunteer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), whose concern for animal welfare inspires her to become a vegan. But it’s Mike White, so veganism is the tip of the iceberg, betraying the trust of her best friend (Regina King), family (Laura Dern and Thomas McCarthy), and boss (Josh Pais, last seen just a day earlier as a pervy gynecologist in Teeth) as her newfound passion veers into the reckless, the unethical, and the criminal. Every time it looks like she may realize that there’s something missing in her life more than a dog, she instead doubles down, and it’s terrifying.

Mike White the screenwriter gets this. Mike White the director doesn’t. Year of the Dog’s theatrical trailer presents the film as a feel-good rom-com. In reality, its trajectory is more like Chuck & Buck than School of Rock, but you could be forgiven for not realizing that until deep into its 93-minute runtime, as the overall aesthetic is stereotypically Sundance: sunny, pastel, overreliant on musical cues– it even borrows a number from Napoleon Dynamite.

Much like in Teeth, the clash between story and tone could be excused as a rookie mistake. But the sudden change of direction at the movie’s end can’t. Up to this point, it’s so clear where we’re headed that the third act is truly baffling. The closest analogy I can think of is 2014’s Let’s Be Cops, a critically reviled frathouse comedy about two civilians who decide to impersonate police officers and abuse the privileges thereof. It starts like a cautionary tale, but instead of having the characters face the consequences of their actions, or go into antihero mode and shamefully get away, the movie avoids any and all repercussions, pretends that nothing wrong was done, ends with a moral of “follow your dream.”

It appears that Let’s Be Cops was following a trail already blazed by Year of the Dog: after traumatizing her niece, potentially breaking up her best friend’s engagement, drunkenly destroying her sister-in-law’s furs, embezzling from her company, and breaking into her neighbor’s house to attack him with a hunting knife, Peggy not only gets away with everything, no questions asked, but is the hero of the movie, welcomed back to her place of work, only to leave and pursue her true calling of animal rights activism. The only explanation I can think of is that White started writing a screenplay about obsession, started researching PETA and whatnot for reference, went native, and changed the ending without thinking about the implications. It’s a surprisingly dunderheaded move from such a gifted guy.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Peggy and Al (Reilly) begin the film as strangers despite living next door to each other for what appears to be years. Layla (King) references going to see the latest Spider-Man (or was it Superman?), and ruins her favorite designer velour sweatsuit. One of Peggy’s co-workers (Craig Cackowski) mentions having eaten a croissanwich.

How Did It Do?
If you’ve seen Year of the Dog and think I’m an asshole, you’re in good company: the movie earned a 70% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. But you probably didn’t see it, because it was released into just 152 theaters and grossed $1.6 million. Mike White, a true screenwriter-auteur working equally in film and television, turned his efforts to the latter to create his most acclaimed series, HBO’s Enlightened. Since the series’ cancellation, he has returned to film, writing the script for this year’s Beatriz at Dinner, the self-styled “first great film of the Trump era,” and now directing his second feature, Brad’s Status.

Next Time: Waitress