Reviews: "Walk Hard"; "Charlie Wilson's War"

Dennis Harvey December 18, 2007

Biopickins: Judd Apatow hits another high note.

It’s been one hell of a year for Judd Apatow, who’s come to so dominate American comedy that more than once I found myself thinking (especially during the tepid “Dan in Real Life”) “If only this movie had been written by Judd Apatow….”

The combination of well-drawn character writing, rude sexual humor. and genre smarts has made nearly every Apatow-written feature thus far a winner — including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Talladega Nights” (he wrote the first draft), “Knocked Up,” and “Superbad.” So it feels right that perhaps the most popularly anticipated feature of an otherwise prestige- and spectacle-laden holiday season in 2007 is an Apatow special. To answer your most urgent question: Yep, it’s pretty funny.

“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” co-written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, is spoof of every cliché triumph-over-adversity musician biopic Hollywood’s trolled out of late. With special love given “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” not to mention the general histories of Elvis, Brian Wilson, Dylan, and so forth.

Dewey (John C. Reilly) is a simple country boy driven to be “double-great” by the dying wish of a prodigy brother he accidentally killed during routine childhood machete play — which incident propels ornery Pa Cox (Raymond J. Barry) to grouse “The wrong one died!” forevermore.

Bearing that burden of manslaughter guilt and paternal loathing, he nonetheless succeeds as a purveyor of Buddy Holly-esque rockabilly, Cash-style hard country, Dylanesque troubadour folk, massively overproduced psychedelia, and so on and so forth. En route, he fathers several dozen children, becomes enslaved by every drug imaginable, does rehab umpteen times, leaves one wife for another who leaves him, sleeps with many people and a few animals, and has a ’70s TV variety show where he sings his old hits in disco arrangements. Naturally, he cleans up for last-lap inspirational uplift.

A reliable second banana since his screen debut in 1989’s “Casualties of War” in 1989, Reilly hasn’t had the opportunity to carry a film before, and this is a perfect showcase. He can really sing — in the variety of imitative styles required by Dan Bern, Mike Viola, Charlie Wadhams and Marshall Crenshaw’s sharp parodic songs — and the genial country-fried dummy act he test-drove in “Talladega Nights” gets a full ride here.

Highlights in the support cast include Tim Meadows as backup band member whose rather weak attempts to ward Dewey off drugs — those he’s very much enjoying himself — are a great running joke. Not to mention Jack White as Elvis, or Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman as The Beatles.

Incongruously, 2007 has given us a bumper crop of good movie musicals: “Dreamgirls” (a 2006 film that didn’t reach most viewers until the new year), “Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Enchanted,” the low-budget local indie “Colma: The Musical” and others raised the bar for a genre many had thought extinct. “Walk Hard” isn’t strictly a “musical” — at least no more or less so than “This Is Spinal Tap”— but it is hands-down the funniest of the bunch.

You might ask, given the pervasive raunchiness of Apatow’s recent successes, whether the bigger-budgeted “Walk Hard” compromises his cheerfully filthy imagination. Heck, not hardly. This movie sports the most hilarious recurrent cameo by a fully exposed (if flaccid) penis you will see at the multiplex this, or perhaps any, year.

Charlie Wilson’s war story: compromised by real life.

Sometimes to figure out why a movie doesn’t quite work, you have to understand the movie that didn’t get made, and why. In the case of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” it is known that the real-life people played by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts strongly urged — presumably with lawyers at the ready — that the film undergo major changes at the last minute.

It seems they did not like one bit “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s suggestion that arms the U.S. covertly supplied to freedom fighters in repelling the Soviet Union’s brutal war on Afghanistan ultimately wound up in the hands of Al Qaeda — thus inadvertently helping create the anti-West fanaticism that led to 9/11, among other things.

It’s a simple if (ahem) inconvenient truth: Had the U.S. invested in a devastated Afghanistan’s post-war reconstruction and democratization one whit as enthusiastically as it funded the war itself, the world we live in today might well be a different, better, safer place.

That substantial point, which reportedly delivered quite a wallop in Sorkin’s original script, is pretty much a whispered afterthought in the “Charlie Wilson’s War” you’ll see starting this Friday. A few tactful lines toward the very end, so low-impact most viewers will probably just take the whole film as an incongruous gung-ho throwback to the Cold War anti-Russkie satires of yore. Taken as is, this “War” is trivial and irresponsible. Even what it likely intended to be, it’s less contemptible than pitiable — an emasculated movie.

Surely Sorkin, director Mike Nichols. and Participant Productions (which has backed such strong political statements as “Syriana,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Darfur Now” and, yes, “An Inconvenient Truth”) had something else in mind. What’s on the cutting room floor — thanks to the real Mr. Wilson and Texas oil heiress Joanne Herring — is so conspicuous in its absence that “Charlie Wilson’s War” feels like its point has been surgically removed.

It’s entertaining enough for a while, if simplistic. Hanks’ Wilson is a longtime Texas Congressman with a well-known penchant for whisky and women. He’s a coasting-through-career politician, without any notable agenda or beliefs — until his wealthy pal Herring (a bewigged Roberts channeling Shirley Maclaine in bossy-rich-dame mode), a rabid anti-Communist, arranges his exposure to the vast, miserable Afghan refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan. He uses his connections (and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an uncouth but very savvy CIA operative) to drastically raise our government’s covert support for resistance toward the “evil empire” USSR’s military aggression.

Nichols, Sorkin and cast play this as arch drawing-room comedy, full of zinger lines and cheeky insights into how things really get done in the halls and back alleys of power. Hanks, who’s always best in comedy (all those Oscars for boring earnestness notwithstanding), is in fine form. Hoffman is downright hilarious. Roberts is decent, though you can’t help but imagine what someone like Annette Bening could have done with the part. (On the downside, “Enchanted’s” Amy Adams is completely wasted in a stock “loyal secretary” role.)

But the flippant tone seems incongruous after a while — this lightweight treatment isn’t daring enough to get away with something as tasteless as a jaunty montage of Russian helicopters and their crews being blown up by guided missiles. (It doesn’t help that Nichols has no flair for staging action — or anything, really. He’s one of the least visually attuned major directors.) Eventually the lack of depth is as palpable as a missing limb — the film ends on what was no doubt originally written as an ironic note of hollow triumph. But by then the movie has become so compromised that it plays like a desperate cop-out. Top-heavy with Oscar’d talent but ultimately as weighty as angel cake, “Charlie Wilson’s War” makes truth lamer than fiction.