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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Knocked Up (2007)

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Knocked Up
Dir. Judd Apatow
Premiered at SXSW March 12, 2007

I don’t know what it was like for the rest of you, but for me, Knocked Up came out of nowhere. Despite living in Southern California, where the film industry spends disproportionate sums on local advertising, I never saw a single trailer, TV spot, or poster for the film. I just woke up one day and there on the cover of Time Magazine was screenwriter/star Seth Rogen, America’s unlikely sweetheart.

Now, let me say this: I like Seth Rogen. He has a very warm presence and a gift for comedic timing, and those things both come out in this film. He’s also an incredibly gifted writer, having begun screenwriting at 14 and earning a plum sitcom writing job straight out of high school. So I’m glad he broke out. I’m just a little confused as to how his big break was this movie.

Rogen stars as Ben Stone, a perpetually broke pothead living with his friends as they try to create a website that documents nude scenes in films, not realizing that such services already exist. Ben has an unlikely one-night stand with the rich, successful, aggressively gentile Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl), resulting in an unplanned pregnancy that causes the two to get back in touch and reconcile their very different lives. In the process, Ben befriends Allison’s brother-in-law (Paul Rudd), who begins to question his own relationship with Allison’s sister (Leslie Mann).

Before I say anything else: this film has some very good jokes. But the film succeeds only as a vehicle for those jokes, surprisingly few and far between as they may be; not so much as a movie.

A few critics more inclined toward demagoguery have decried the film’s message as little more than antiquated, borderline fascist propaganda, and while I see where they’re coming from, anyone can see that those problems are merely side-effects of poor execution. First, Allison briefly discusses abortion with her mother, but decides to keep the baby. This I can easily forgive, as without the pregnancy, there’s no movie. Second, the film ends with Ben and Allison staying together, implying that they’ll eventually get married. The idea being that Judd Apatow is telling unhappy couples to “do it for the kids.”

But that’s the problem. The movie wants us to root for them to stay together, but these people should not be together. At her worst, Allison is bitter and contemptuous toward Ben and ultimately just learns to tolerate him for the sake of their child. Ben eventually grows up and gets a job (which I imagine is really easy fresh out of college with zero experience), but that doesn’t make him any more of a match for her. To her credit, Heigl actually complained about her character’s lack of humor when the film came out, but she immediately undercut her complaint by going on to perform near-identical and often more shrewish roles in countless romantic “comedies.”

Speaking of romantic comedies, Knocked Up has no style. Much if not most of the film looks as glossy and anonymous as, say, The Other Woman or Think Like a Man. Director Judd Apatow’s continuing inability to portray people who aren’t wealthy or don’t work in the entertainment industry only seems to be getting worse with time, and it started here. And in a long tradition of learning all the wrong lessons, the film’s unusual running time somehow convinced Hollywood that movies are funnier when they’re an hour too long. While Knocked Up still has some very funny jokes and brought more good into the world than bad ultimately, it is most certainly less than the sum of its parts, and speaking as an adult, quite depressing.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Ryan Seacrest dreams of an exit strategy from Iraq. Pete wants to watch Taxicab Confessions and got Hideki Matsui on his fantasy baseball roster. Lily Allen’s “Smile” makes its obligatory appearance. There’s a product placement for a Moto Razr. Allison’s first on-air interview is with Matthew Fox from Lost. Three separate references to the then-in-theaters Spider-Man 3. Jonah and Martin re-enact Murderball with hospital wheelchairs. Ben despises Steely Dan.

Additional Notes

  • The economics of Knocked Up are a common complaint for Apatow films and rom-coms generally, but it’s even weirder here: Pete (Paul Rudd) can singlehandedly support a family of four in a giant house in Brentwood while working in the moribund music industry, yet Allison has a stable full-time job and still lives in his guesthouse.

  • Since we’re on the subject of Mr. Apatow, I want to clarify that I don’t dislike him. I’ve worked on one of his shows, and I think he’s a great businessman with a real eye for great ideas and talented people, but since this film, whenever he’s in the director’s chair, it seems like he can’t get outside his own head.

  • Debbie (Leslie Mann) is an anti-vaxxer, and the film treats it as just another example of her being an overprotective busybody, instead of, you know, fucking dangerous. It’s a minor line, but it completely undercuts the character’s credibility. Less than a year after this film came out, there was a huge mumps outbreak in a wealthy suburb of San Diego, and everyone was shocked that rich kids would get sick, and that’s when the whole anti-vaccine movement was essentially outed in America. Since then, the vaccination rate in Los Angeles’ affluent western suburbs, where this film takes place, have a lower child vaccination rate than South Sudan, where access to medical care is limited by a civil war. I don’t think Apatow would’ve taken the same approach if the character was, say, a creationist.

  • At one point, there’s an earthquake, and Ben’s housemates and neighbors line up on the street afterward while police drive by for inspection. Having lived my entire life in California, I’m befuddled. The point of going outside during an earthquake is to get away from things falling on you. There’s no post-mortem muster involved.

  • Another fucking contrived epidural irony. That was played out when they did it on Mad About You.

  • Something I never noticed before: multiple visual references to Neil Young’s Landing on Water. If you can figure out why, be my guest.

  • Ben gets an apartment in East LA and they get there by driving west from Santa Monica because sunsets are pretty.

  • Easily, easily the only part of this film that truly holds up is the “chair scene” from Ben and Pete’s Vegas digression:

How Did It Do?
Comedy can’t really be engineered; things just kinda have to go right. But the desire to find a formula that will “make something funny” will never go away, and the…let’s call them systemic novelties…in Knocked Up gave Hollywood– or infected it with– the idea that the key to a successful comedy is to have a much longer running time and way more improvisation. This is how we got, among many, many other things, the Ghostbusters remake.

Sure, Knocked Up was a smash hit, grossing $219.1 million against a $30 million budget, it earned an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a spot in way too many Top Ten lists, legitimized Seth Rogen as a screenwriter and comedic star outside the normal “funny fat guy” mold, and allowed Director Judd Apatow to become a true impresario of comedy, shaping tastes and making stars up to the very present– but as the hype has worn off, its ultimate legacy will be teaching filmmakers the wrong lessons, encouraging screenwriters and directors to treat all comedy like the very particular voices of a talented few.

But Knocked Up is still only one movie. Don’t count Apatow– or especially Rogen– out for 2007.

Next Time: Talk to Me