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 worldlike 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 ofunpaid interns working around the clock on a portable comedy-bot thatcan sit in a theater and gauge with complete objectivity just howfunny a movie is while I take a siesta in the seat beside it. Sadly,the interns failed (services will be held this weekend), and whileI've got a few more ideas to try as soon as I can round up a new teamand scrub the stains out of the lab, I was left to see "Walk Hard: TheDewey Cox Story" the old-fashioned way: with my own clear anderror-free eyes.
One fine day while machete fighting with his piano prodigy youngerbrother, Cox accidentally cuts him in half. These things happen, butbefore his brother passes on, he tells Cox he'll need to be twice asgreat 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 from14 on up by an obviously-middle-aged John C. Reilly) leaves home,marries Kristen Wiig, and tries to launch his musical career. It's awhile before Reilly catches a break, and when he does, the temptationsof fame and the road come fast and hard.
The rest plays out like a surreal episode of "Behind the Music" asReilly meets and is influenced by the musicians of the age whilereaping the rewards that drive all true art--drugs, adultery, andbales of illegitimate children--and searching for a way to forgivehimself 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-writerJake Kasdan and producer/co-writer Judd Apatow, two of the mightiestoverlords of Apatow Productions, the comedy empire which has annexedHollywood under its benevolent dictatorship in recent years. Theirwork tends to be looser and improv-heavy while remaining centeredaround people and emotions that feel real. How do they do with aconcept-driven movie that in many ways seems like it could have beenmade by "Saturday Night Live" members?
Pretty well. Reilly's the kind of actor who's given a lot ofsecondary roles because he makes every movie he's in better, so it'sno big surprise that, as "Walk Hard's" lead, he's funny andcommanding. Good voice, too, which he gets to show off on some catchysongs penned by Dan Bern.
It also helps that Reilly's supporting cast is pretty much everycomedian in history since the first caveman fell on his face. Dudesfrom "The Office," Apatow regulars, "SNL" and "Upright CitizensBrigade" refugees, Jacks both White and Black--there's so much talenthere you could practically miss the whole film playing "Name ThatActor."
So it's a little weird when it's not endlessly hilarious. Oh, it'splenty funny, but it's definitely got its peaks and valleys. Or maybenot valleys so much as stretches where it's only fairly funny, glidingby on charm and some relatively obvious jokes about monkeys and drugsand Cox puns before getting back to an over-the-top scene or killerline.
That's no big point against it. It's just that it's not reallyreaching for anything more. It's more a spoof than a satire and it'stoo 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 whentheir other works are so insanely good ("The TV Set," "Knocked Up,"etc.), but those other ones don't just have more depth, they'refunnier, too.
On the other hand, you don't need robots to tell you you've justlaughed a bunch. Movies like "Heartbreak Kid" and "Balls of Fury"prove that's not as easy as you'd think. "Walk Hard's" noworld-beater, but even when the Apatow Productions team isn't firingon all cylinders, they're still pretty good.