Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Frank Review of "Walk The Line" (2005)

The Short Version? Johnny Cash & June Carter bio-pic.
What Is It? Drama
Who's In It? Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick
Should I See It? Maybe.

I enjoyed River Phoenix’s work when he was with us, and continue to enjoy his brother’s today. Joaquin in his best roles radiates with intelligence and sensitivity, and many still remember his excellent turn as a baddie in "Gladiator." In "To Die For," he captured that Zen blankness/neural inactivity that has pretty much defined the careers of Keanu Reeves and Josh Hartnett. So taking all this into account, I know he’s acting in "Walk The Line." I just never realized Johnny Cash was a mongoloid. Considering how often I’ve heard this film compared to "Ray," I’m concerned that when I do finally catch that flick, I’ll be treated to the sight of Jamie Foxx finger painting with his own feces.

Acting possibly as a sequel to "Pumpkin," at its heart "Walk The Line" is the story of a romance between a beautiful young woman and her mentally-impaired stalker. As the screenplay was based on two autobiographies, I suspect Johnny exaggerated his youthful dopiness for comedic effect, only to have his memory mauled by someone who played that angle straight. In this movie Johnny’s life is portrayed as a mishmash of every other early rock doc you’ve seen, with emphasis on "Balls of Fire" (Johnny played as an object of ridicule badgering teenyboppers into marriage and engaging in epic consumption.)

Early reports had one of Johnny’s daughters from his first marriage complaining about her mother being portrayed as a shrew who tried to derail Johnny’s career in music, even after he proved a success. I just don’t see it, as all audience sympathies seem directed at the poor girl, neglected and abused by a selfish moron who’s transparently directing his affections at another woman. It doesn’t seem enough for Johnny to be unlikable in this film, which I could have gotten behind, considering his early reputation. The filmmakers go that extra mile to make Cash seem utterly pathetic. As he pursues June Carter throughout the film, it seems each time she shuts him down (always with good cause,) we get a sequence of Johnny hitting the bottle/pills with increasing severity. In this Post-Oprah age, I was seized with the urge to project self-esteem and maybe a little Girl Power through time into the Man in Black’s heart. If he was that sorry as a boy, it's no wonder his daddy named him Sue.

So suffice to say Phoenix pisses away any potential sex appeal in this role, which at least counters his being entirely too good looking in this part. Even when he’s pulling goofy faces onstage, I’m thinking how much better he would have been as Elvis. The King does have a small role here, as does Jerry Lee Lewis and a host of other rock legends, but close friend and country superstar Waylon Jennings barely gets a mention, even as his son plays him in a cameo too brief to warrant Scooter’s credit sequence mention. Robert Patrick is one-note as Johnny’s unpleasant but hardly terrible father, and after spending two hours plus with this Johnny, you can forgive him for wishing the boy had traded places with his brother in that lethal saw accident. In fact, the only moment that rang true for me with regards to Johnny in this picture was his cursing up a storm while badly operating a tractor after Patrick reminded him once again what a fuck-up he was.

So after this drubbing, you probably expect me to tell you to pass on this feature. While I’d certainly recommend waiting for video, one turn was so rewarding as to edge the film into the black for me. After a loathsome collection of trailers and the lukewarm critical response, the last thing I expected was to see this movie salvaged by Reese Witherspoon. While I held respect for her from her early works like "Election," my companion at this showing knew only disdain for the "Legally Blonde" romcom magnet. Even he had to confess admiration for Witherspoon’s June Carter, a charismatic, centered, utterly believable woman caught between her showbiz existence and the oppressive realities of 50’s life for a single woman with children. Witherspoon is utterly winning here, seemingly transformed by raven locks that highlight a jagged, rural bone structure in her face I’d never seen before. The only thing that keeps her from being 100% perfect is her singing voice, which is actually a bit stronger than the real June Carter’s. If anyone can convincingly give cause for Johnny’s creepy pursuit, it’s this woman.

I remember hearing the story of up-and-coming country singer Rodney Crowell meeting wife-to-be Rosanne Cash’s parents for the first time. Adding the normal anxiety with it taking the form of country royalty, Crowell drank a might heavily on the plane ride to their home. Upon arriving, Crowell made a stink when he learned Johnny & June had set up separate bedrooms for the young couple. More than a bit tired of this kid, Johnny looked Rodney straight in the eye and calmly explained, "I don’t know you well enough to miss you if you were gone." Virtually the last person in "Walk The Line" you’d expect to have that kind of snap would be Johnny Cash, so I can’t help but feel a little cheated. As I recall we’re treated to only a decade of Cash’s life, almost exclusively centered on his twisted courtship of June Carter, and none of it imbued with that distinct Cash flavor. I wanted both more and less from this experience, and as the movie’s done reasonably well at the box office, I’m hopeful another creative crew will take a swing at continuing Cash’s story. At the very least, I’d like to see the Ostrich attack, right?

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