The back of the box called, like a celluloid siren of self-loathing, to the part of me that hates myself. “American Cox,” it said, “The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut.” What a delicious challenge the “unrated” DVD release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story promised.
Walk Hard seemed like such a sure thing. Premises as mundane as pregnancy (and results as lackluster as Knocked Up) have done nothing to slow the Judd Apatow juggernaut, and previous Apatowian efforts at character-driven genre spoofs (Anchorman) had paid off handsomely.
Each effort, however, inched closer to biting the hand that feeds the box office. With Walk Hard, co-written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, the invisible threshold that separates the mockery from the mocked (for example, Talladega Nights and legions of potentially-enraged NASCAR fans) was crossed. Apparently, the tipping point for American audiences comes somewhere between filming a farcical remake of the biopic of an American legend and releasing it barely four years after his death.
The tale of the tape best describes the ugliness: Walk Hard barely made $20 million in theaters worldwide, recouping a little more than half of its $35 million production budget. Anchorman made more than that in its opening weekend, while Talladega Nights doubled that number.
Of course, both of those were Will Ferrell vehicles. Is there some sort of quasi-mathematical Ferrellian constant to be taken into account here? Probably not, as Ferrell’s inclusion in a project is hardly a guarantee of success, and Walk Hard star John C. Reilly’s range is both broader and deeper than Ferrell’s game plan of taking a one-word description and tacking “wacky” on the front of it.
When it comes down to it, Walk Hard’s poor reception isn’t a question of disrespect for the dead or of the impropriety of the humor as it is the lack of skill in its execution. The comedy was hyped as a “wicked send-up of every musical biopic ever made,” but in reality it’s just a warped mirror held up to Walk the Line with a few semi-original segues shoehorned in to lampoon styles and eras in which Johnny Cash didn’t directly participate.
The humor itself, interestingly enough, is just fine. Snippets lifted in their entirety from the context of the film are actually funny. A 6-year-old picking up a guitar for the first time and cranking out a blues song about cutting his brother in half? Funny. Satirical pastiches of painful biopic conventions like actors playing ages they have no business playing? Funny. Tim Meadows’ line-by-line dissertations on the benefits of practically every drug known to man, delivered as earnest warnings against trying them? Hilarious.
But what about that director’s cut? As it turns out, the “unbearably long” and “self-indulgent” claims aren’t far from the truth. The American Cox edition doesn’t add anything to Walk Hard’s anemic experience. Nothing is made clearer or more entertaining; instead, the additional footage seems to be added only for the purpose of having a second version of the film to adorn with a director’s-cut label. The editing work is sometimes jarring, more reminiscent at times of a high-school video yearbook project than a mainstream theatrical release, and it feels as though the bonus material was added mostly from takes where the actors missed their marks. Characters have a bad habit of teleporting six inches to the left, or seemingly moving their heads faster than the camera can capture.
Walk Hard takes aim at its targets with all the subtlety of a nuclear-tipped ICBM, and the director’s cut only makes the bombs fall for an additional half-hour.