Judd Apatow can do no wrong, apparently.
Even in taking on a genre parody, an endeavor that would seem painfully hackneyed by now following "Scary Movie," "Epic Movie" and the like, the comic mastermind behind "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" manages to find fresh laughs again and again.
"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," a take-off on the music biopic, hits all the familiar conventions we've seen in overly earnest movies like "Ray," "Walk the Line" and even "La Vie en Rose," with its ballyhooed portrayal of Edith Piaf by Marion Cotillard. (This time, longtime Apatow friend and collaborator Jake Kasdan directs, and the two co-wrote the script.)
The marginally talented country rocker Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) comes from humble, Southern beginnings and experiences tragedy early his brother's death, which haunts him long into adulthood. He marries his childhood sweetheart and eventually fulfills his dreams of music stardom through sheer heart and grit, even though the ones closest to him never quite believed in him.
Along the way, of course, he gets hooked on and quits every drug imaginable, has countless wives and children and hangs out with legends like the Beatles, Buddy Holly and Elvis. (The cameos for these roles are classic, and the less you know about them going in, the better.)
Apatow and Kasdan sometimes don't know when to let their jokes die a graceful death, beating several of them into the ground. (Dewey likes to rip sinks out of bathroom walls during fits of artistic rage, for example; it's not all that funny the first time.) But what keeps the movie giddy and buoyant throughout is the presence of Reilly, a comic actor who can break your heart with his underdog sweetness, and who isn't afraid to go to the goofiest places possible for the big laughs.
Reilly frequently has been cast as the lovable sidekick ("Talladega Nights," "Boogie Nights") or the sympathetic sad-sack ("Magnolia," "Chicago"). "Walk Hard" gives this versatile character actor his long overdue chance to shine all the time even when the role calls for him to be selfish and obnoxious.
Dewey Cox is a rock star, after all. This means he has to leave the stability of home (where his first wife, covered in babies and played by Kristen Wiig, repeatedly warns, "You're never gonna make it!") for the myriad temptations of the road. Tim Meadows is at his deadpan best as the band's drummer, Sam, who introduces Dewey to pot, coke, acid and ultimately Viagra, but has the decency to warn him about the drugs' perils first.
Bigger trouble comes in the form of the band's pretty, new backup singer, Darlene, played with uncharacteristic lusciousness by "The Office" co-star Jenna Fischer. Despite her abiding chastity or perhaps because of it Dewey can't resist her. (Their highly suggestive stage duet, a moment straight out of "Walk the Line," is a hoot.)
Apatow, Kasdan and Co. clearly have affection for this character, and for this kind of movie. As Reilly says in the production notes, "We treated Dewey Cox as if he really existed." And it shows. They toss in all the cliches you'd expect, such as the obligatory montage of album covers, newspaper clippings and screaming crowds as Dewey makes his rise up the Billboard charts. And the grainy, black-and-white section, straight out of D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Bob Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back," is a nice touch.
But there's never any meanness involved. And except for some full-frontal male nudity, which is hilarious for its gratuitousness and wow, you will not see it coming there's really no gross-out humor.
That doesn't mean "Walk Hard" ever goes easy on you. Like "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," it'll make you laugh so hard your face will hurt and you might even cough up some phlegm. (Surely this happened to other people in the audience, yes?)
Someone who lived and loved as hard as Dewey Cox would appreciate that.
"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.