Comedies are about as subjective as movies come.
How funny does a movie need to be before it can be called "hilarious"? What's better, a comedy with a few big laughs, or a lot of small ones? If I could invent a robot that measured just how funny a given movie is, would that win me some sort of Nobel Prize? And in this day and age, is a million bucks really enough to quit all your jobs and travel the world like a modern-day king? Or should I hold out for two?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I've had a team of unpaid interns working around the clock on a portable comedy-bot that can sit in a theater and gauge with complete objectivity just how funny a movie is while I take a siesta in the seat beside it. Sadly, the interns failed (services will be held this weekend), and while I've got a few more ideas to try as soon as I can round up a new team and scrub the stains out of the lab, I was left to see "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" the old-fashioned way: with my own clear and error-free eyes.
One fine day while machete fighting with his piano prodigy younger brother, Cox accidentally cuts him in half. These things happen, but before his brother passes on, he tells Cox he'll need to be twice as great to make up for it, pushing him into a life as a singer.
After inciting a riot at his high school talent show, Cox (played from 14 on up by an obviously-middle-aged John C. Reilly) leaves home, marries Kristen Wiig, and tries to launch his musical career. It's a while before Reilly catches a break, and when he does, the temptations of fame and the road come fast and hard.
The rest plays out like a surreal episode of "Behind the Music" as Reilly meets and is influenced by the musicians of the age while reaping the rewards that drive all true art--drugs, adultery, and bales of illegitimate children--and searching for a way to forgive himself for the tragic brother-halving that's defined his life.
This sort of broad farce is a bit of a new move for director/co-writer Jake Kasdan and producer/co-writer Judd Apatow, two of the mightiest overlords of Apatow Productions, the comedy empire which has annexed Hollywood under its benevolent dictatorship in recent years. Their work tends to be looser and improv-heavy while remaining centered around people and emotions that feel real. How do they do with a concept-driven movie that in many ways seems like it could have been made by "Saturday Night Live" members?
Pretty well. Reilly's the kind of actor who's given a lot of secondary roles because he makes every movie he's in better, so it's no big surprise that, as "Walk Hard's" lead, he's funny and commanding. Good voice, too, which he gets to show off on some catchy songs penned by Dan Bern.
It also helps that Reilly's supporting cast is pretty much every comedian in history since the first caveman fell on his face. Dudes from "The Office," Apatow regulars, "SNL" and "Upright Citizens Brigade" refugees, Jacks both White and Black--there's so much talent here you could practically miss the whole film playing "Name That Actor."
So it's a little weird when it's not endlessly hilarious. Oh, it's plenty funny, but it's definitely got its peaks and valleys. Or maybe not valleys so much as stretches where it's only fairly funny, gliding by on charm and some relatively obvious jokes about monkeys and drugs and Cox puns before getting back to an over-the-top scene or killer line.
That's no big point against it. It's just that it's not really reaching for anything more. It's more a spoof than a satire and it's too clownish to land on any emotional levels until its final song, which does hit harder than any movie in the tradition of "Airplane!" should. Perhaps it's unfair to compare it to their other works when their other works are so insanely good ("The TV Set," "Knocked Up," etc.), but those other ones don't just have more depth, they're funnier, too.
On the other hand, you don't need robots to tell you you've just laughed a bunch. Movies like "Heartbreak Kid" and "Balls of Fury" prove that's not as easy as you'd think. "Walk Hard's" no world-beater, but even when the Apatow Productions team isn't firing on all cylinders, they're still pretty good.