Recent disasters such as Date Movie and Epic Movie strongly suggested that parody is dead. Perhaps devolutionâ€™s to blame: After all, itâ€™s 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 didnâ€™t need it anymore.
But hereâ€™s 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 yearâ€™s The TV Set), with John C. Reilly starring as Cox. For years Reilly was best known as â€śthat guyâ€ťâ€”he 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 Reillyâ€™s goofy mug on the filmâ€™s 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. â€śGive him a minute, son,â€ť says Coxâ€™s bandmate, Sam (Tim Meadows). â€śDewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.â€ť Indeed, thereâ€™s a lot to think about: Young Dewey (Conner Rayburn) wasnâ€™t 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, â€śTake My Hand.â€ť (â€śYou know whose got hands?â€ť a preacher yells. â€śThe devil!â€ť) Eventually, Dewey becomes a janitor at an all-black nightclub and gets his break when the headliner (The Officeâ€™s Craig Robinson) is sick.
One performance of â€ś(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Manâ€ť 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 Deweyâ€”at one point, he cries, â€śGoddammit, this is a dark fuckinâ€™ period!â€ť while jackhammering a blondeâ€”but Walk Hard delivers a pretty steady stream of fine moments. The humor gets naughty, but in general itâ€™s 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 Jacksonâ€™s Black Snake Moan voice coming out of Deweyâ€™s baby face.
With a great script and South Park-Âworthy songs supporting himâ€”try to get â€śLetâ€™s Duet,â€ť a June & Johnny spoof with Jenna Fischer, out of your headâ€”Reilly could have gone through the motions and still gotten laughs. But heâ€™s brilliant in Coxâ€™s various periods, from slick-haired teenybopper (Reilly plays a 14-year-old, an apparent nod to Kevin Spaceyâ€™s misguided self-casting in Beyond the Sea) to Cash-esque country star to curly-haired, logorrheic Bob Dylan (easily outdoing Cate Blanchettâ€™s ballyhooed Iâ€™m Not There turn). The supporting cast deftly handles the silliness as well, especially Raymond J. Barry as Coxâ€™s dad and Kristen Wiig as his harried first wife, and, in one of the movieâ€™s best scenes, cameos by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman, and Justin Long asâ€¦the Beatles. Turns out that parody wasnâ€™t 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 itâ€™s 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 Hollywoodâ€™s 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. Itâ€™s not a bad filmâ€”grading on a curve, itâ€™s 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: Itâ€™s 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 Barkerâ€™s 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 Turpinâ€™s. 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).
Toddâ€™s 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. (Carterâ€™s introductory song, â€śThe Worst Pies in London,â€ť is one of the productionâ€™s best, uptempo and funny.) Itâ€™d 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 Toddâ€™s 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 doesnâ€™t last, of courseâ€”there are quite graphic, torturously slow throat-slicings and, well, the singing. None of the majors have terrible voices, but many of Sondheimâ€™s tunes arenâ€™t 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 doesnâ€™t bring much notable to the character. (Exceptions: His eye-rolling reactions during â€śBy the Sea,â€ť Lovettâ€™s 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 Cohenâ€™s 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 â€™em.