Recent disasters such as Date Movie and Epic Movie strongly suggested that parody is dead. Perhaps devolutionâs to blame: After all, itâs been a long time since the heydays of Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. Maybe Mother Nature decided that this particular talent gene was so increasingly underused, humans really didnât need it anymore.
But hereâs Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Who knew that Judd Apatow, the newly anointed master of sex comedies, also spoke jive? Apatow co-wrote Walk Hard with director Jake Kasdan (who negotiated some fine, if little-seen, satire of his own with this yearâs The TV Set), with John C. Reilly starring as Cox. For years Reilly was best known as âthat guyââhe spent the early part of his career doing character work in dramas until he got the chance to upstage Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Casting Reilly as a comedic lead in a hugely anticipated holiday opener may have seemed like a risk, but doubters need only glance at Reillyâs goofy mug on the filmâs poster to get that this was an inspired choice.
Walk Hard is a sendup of the musician biopic in general, but mostly it sews together the scenes and storylines of Ray and Walk the Line. It begins as Cox is about to give his final performance, with a young producer trying to rush the singer, whom he finds facing a wall with arm outstretched and head down. âGive him a minute, son,â says Coxâs bandmate, Sam (Tim Meadows). âDewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.â Indeed, thereâs a lot to think about: Young Dewey (Conner Rayburn) wasnât as gifted as his brother when it came to music but decided to dedicate his life to it anyway after accidentally slicing little Nate (Chip Hormess) in half in 1946. He later causes a riot at his Alabama high school with a gentle pop song, âTake My Hand.â (âYou know whose got hands?â a preacher yells. âThe devil!â) Eventually, Dewey becomes a janitor at an all-black nightclub and gets his break when the headliner (The Officeâs Craig Robinson) is sick.
One performance of â(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Manâ later, and Dewey is hip-thrusting his way to stardom, complete with the attendant drugs, sex, and desperate late-stage career reinventions. This life might have been tough for Deweyâat one point, he cries, âGoddammit, this is a dark fuckinâ period!â while jackhammering a blondeâbut Walk Hard delivers a pretty steady stream of fine moments. The humor gets naughty, but in general itâs more Simpsons than Superbad. Anyone who was rightfully appalled at August Rush, the recent film about a musical prodigy, for instance, will laugh their asses off when Dewey becomes a blues virtuoso the first time he picks up a guitar, with Sam Jacksonâs Black Snake Moan voice coming out of Deweyâs baby face.
With a great script and South Park-Âworthy songs supporting himâtry to get âLetâs Duet,â a June & Johnny spoof with Jenna Fischer, out of your headâReilly could have gone through the motions and still gotten laughs. But heâs brilliant in Coxâs various periods, from slick-haired teenybopper (Reilly plays a 14-year-old, an apparent nod to Kevin Spaceyâs misguided self-casting in Beyond the Sea) to Cash-esque country star to curly-haired, logorrheic Bob Dylan (easily outdoing Cate Blanchettâs ballyhooed Iâm Not There turn). The supporting cast deftly handles the silliness as well, especially Raymond J. Barry as Coxâs dad and Kristen Wiig as his harried first wife, and, in one of the movieâs best scenes, cameos by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman, and Justin Long asâŠthe Beatles. Turns out that parody wasnât dead after all. It just went through a dark fuckinâ period.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Directed by Tim Burton
Musicals are so off-putting to some that itâs likely even the Âblackest-souled fans of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp might hesitate before buying a ticket to their latest collaboration, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. How many throat-slittings would provide adequate compensation for sitting through a nearly two-hour film driven by Stephen Sondheim songs? The pairing of the murder-and-meat-pies Broadway hit and Hollywoodâs go-to Goths seems natural, but a few picky pallids may find cannibalism a bit distasteful when accompanied by a tune.
Unfortunately, more than the score sinks Sweeney Todd. Itâs not a bad filmâgrading on a curve, itâs actually rather enjoyable. Burton-Depp devotees salivating for a bleak holiday blockbuster need to dial down their expectations, though. Screenwriter John Logan pared down the Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler stage version but hewed closely to the story: Itâs 19th-century London, and Benjamin Barker (Depp) has just returned from Australia, where he was imprisoned for 15 years by a judge named Turpin (the always terrifically oily Alan Rickman), who was in love with Barkerâs wife. Barker, now calling himself Sweeney Todd, discovers that his wife killed herself, but his daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), has been living as a virtual prisoner of Turpinâs. Todd wants revenge, but first he sets up a barber shop above a desolate meat-pie store run by a bad cook named Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter).
Toddâs first homicide was unplanned, provoked by a customer who saw past the bride-of-Frankenstein hair and recognized the barber as Benjamin. But what Todd and Lovett lack in melanin, they make up for in brains: Murder is really just a bad shave waiting to happen, and meat prices being what they are, grinding the fresh corpses into pies might just save Lovett money and face. (Carterâs introductory song, âThe Worst Pies in London,â is one of the productionâs best, uptempo and funny.) Itâd only be a matter of time before Todd has Turpin in his chair. Meanwhile, Todd encourages a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) with eyes for Johanna to help rescue her.
Sweeney Toddâs cinematography has a fitting shades-of-gray palette that evokes poverty, oppression, and death. The opening is particularly Burton-esque, with a swirling, urgent, cartoonish string score accompanying images of meat grinders and blood so acrylic-red it could be leftover candy from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set. The bizarro-world kid-friendliness doesnât last, of courseâthere are quite graphic, torturously slow throat-slicings and, well, the singing. None of the majors have terrible voices, but many of Sondheimâs tunes arenât very memorable, which makes several segments of the film drag. (Edward Sanders, however, as a boy who helps around the shop, slays his co-stars whenever he uses his Broadway-ready pipes.)
Worse, Depp seems confined. He glowers and offs his clientele with verve, but otherwise he doesnât bring much notable to the character. (Exceptions: His eye-rolling reactions during âBy the Sea,â Lovettâs pondering of a potential romantic relationship, are amusing, as is the anomalous Crayola-colored picnic scene as a whole.) Carter and Rickman are similarly solid but unspectacular; the most entertaining performance by far is Sacha Baron Cohenâs brief appearance as an outrageously dressed and accented Italian con man. Of all the musicals in all the world, Sweeney Todd was undoubtedly the perfect choice for this filmmaking team. But fans of both the stage version and the Burton crew may find the adaptation too by-the-numbers to really slay âem.