What was I thinking when I rented this turd? Oh yeah, that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby might be a funny, entertaining diversion. One can’t always watch grim tales of abortion in Communist Romania or the death of a small town’s entire generation of children. I had long since tired of Will Ferrell, once a treasure on the Saturday Night Live cast, but long since devolved into a movie factory that produces mostly crassness for crassness’ sake. But I had heard Talladega Nights also featured good turns from Molly Shannon, Amy Adams, and Sasha Baron Cohen, and I had also recently enjoyed John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. All fail to amuse here.
The ensemble obviously improvised whole chunks of the movie, but not really to its benefit. I counted only two bits that made me laugh: Bobby extemporizes the commercial endorsement “If you don’t chew Big Red, *BLEEP* you!” (a line so aggressively stupid I laughed on impulse), and later, his poncy French rival Jean Girard (Cohen) reveals his corporate sponsor, Perrier. These two gags should make it clear that although Talledega Nights is not the first comedy to parody extreme product placement, it does drive it to a heretofore unexplored new level of absurdity. Finally, it dispenses with its relative subtleties altogether and simply cuts to an actual Applebee’s commercial.
This blogger finds most so-called biopics wanting. The two to three hour feature film format is more akin to an essay or short story than a book, and as such is ill-equipped to sum up the entire life of a human being in more than just a string of highlights. Yet studios and filmmakers keep churning out parades of Classics Illustrated-like films that seem to exist mostly to grant actors Oscars and Golden Globes based on their abilities to imitate historical figures. The best of them ought more deservedly to be recognized for their abilities to create new characters from whole cloth.
But I reserve a special degree of hate for musical biopics; I’m looking at you, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, and El Cantante! They all seem to be forged from the same template: troubled genius beset by addiction, and the woman that loves him anyway. Comfortingly, the existence of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story proves I’m not alone in bemoaning this most pathetic genre. Walk Hard touches on each cliché in turn: physical infirmity (Cox is tragically “nose blind”), drugs, disapproving parent, dead sibling, etc.
At its best, director and co-writer (with Judd Apatow) Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard is a history of popular music and narcotics from the 1950s on. The chameleonic Cox evolves with the times, beginning as a diamond-in-the-rough Ray Charles type, breaking through like a young Johnny Cash, becoming a pop superstar Elvis Presley, passing through a Bob Dylan folkie stage, and ending up as a Brian Wilson, an obsessive pop genius unable to complete his unachievable masterpiece (like Wilson’s own notorious Smile). The best running gag in the movie involves Cox’s succession of drug addictions (pot, cocaine, heroin, pills, and, well, everything…), which no doubt gave the MPAA a heart attack.
Lest I sound like I’m praising the film for being clever, here’s the bad news. The self-proclaimed “The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut” DVD edition repeats the same jokes over and over. Its idea of hilarity is to repeat the name “Cox” as much as possible, which should give some hint as to the overall level of sophistication. Each character explicitly verbalizes and explicates the genre clichés and their own character types: the unsupportive starter wife, the doomed sibling, the venal music studio boss, and the disapproving father (whose refrain “The wrong kid died!” follows Cox through his life as both curse and motivation). Historical celebrity cameos are repeatedly signposted with their full names, lest anyone in the audience not catch on that the batch of four candy-colored lads from Liverpool noodling on sitars in an Indian ashram are, in fact, The Beatles. It is great fun, however, to see Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, and Jack White do their best Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, respectively.
One little quibble: as the characters age, the makeup jobs are actually too good, far better than, say the outrageously silly age makeup for Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. This unfortunately ruins the genuinely funny gag that John C. Reilly plays Cox as a teenager with no attempt to hide his age. Why not carry it through to the end, with Reilly looking exactly the same when Cox is supposed to be 70?
Does anybody remember when Reilly was a serious actor? I’m happy for him that he’s no doubt building a significant nest egg off his recent string of lowbrow comedies (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, etc.), but I hope we will see more of the fine actor of Sydney (aka Hard Eight), Boogie Nights, and The Hours.
The Netflix queue is, by its nature, the opposite of the instant gratification of a rental store. You add movies you think you might want to see some day, then sit back and wait for them to arrive in an order decided by computer, according to factors and algorithms outside of your control. Enough time had passed since I added Year of the Dog that I could no longer recall why. Possibly I read a good review somewhere, or maybe I was curious about the sudden reappearance of Molly Shannon (part of “my” Saturday Night Live of the mid-90s — am I right that people feel the most affection for the SNL cast of their college years?). But I feel baited and switched; this is not a drama or romantic comedy but rather a movie with an agenda.
Writer/director Mike White’s Year of the Dog is a feature-length dramatization of Janeane Garofalo’s gag “You can love your pets, but you can’t love your pets.” Not unlike Lily in Eagle Vs. Shark, Peggy (Shannon) is a gentle sweetheart, but alienated and lonely. Her relationship with brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy from The Wire Season 5) and sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) is distant at best, and her closest friends are oblivious workmates.
When she loses the unconditional love of her dog Pencil, she becomes hungry for, as she puts it, a single word to define her. On a date with Al (John C. Reilly), Peggy demonstrates a dislike of hunting, the seed from which her new fervor for an animal activist lifestyle grows. Her one word, she decides, is to be “vegan.”
Her new life teases her at first with the possibility of love with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), but he is too much like her, or what she might become: unable to love humans nearly as much as animals. From here, the tone shifts to the disturbing, as Peggy causes her life to fall apart. Her clumsy activism costs her her job and family, and she soon descends to theft and attempted murder.
And yet, the movie appears to present her ultimate state as a happy ending of sorts. She chooses to be friendless and unloved, but has found meaning and purpose. The most important part of the movie is missing: what happens between Peggy hitting rock bottom (where she becomes unable to function in society) and her total ascendance as a self-assured being? I don’t buy the sudden switcheroo that it’s all OK because she has discovered herself.
Would real-life animal activists find Peggy and Newt amusingly exaggerated versions of themselves, or insulting stereotypes? Even as I am the owner of two rescued casts, it strikes me that choosing the love of animals over that of people is a kind of mental illness that begs for correction, not celebration.