The Real of Dewey Cox

by zunguzungu

What makes Walk Hard interesting is the way its formula produces Dewey Cox as enigma, as cipher. The joke is that we know him so thoroughly, that his life is so completely a function of biopic conventions, that he can at one point shout out to no one but the movie audience: “Man, this is a dark period in my life!” Every stage of his life is so thoroughly taken from a “Behind the Music” special or from biopics like Ray or Walk the Line that you can only get the jokes if you already know the genre, if you’ve already seen and been invested in that kind of story. Yet that intense exteriority — the way the personal has been translated into a publicly shared idiom we all know so well — is exactly what forces us to imagine an unseen interiority that we can’t see or know, making the real Dewey Cox emerge as an object of desire as a “real” which is a function of the extent to which we have not seen it. We know what we want to see because it’s the thing we don’t know.

Walk Hard frustrates this desire at every point, of course, and that’s the joke. The movie opens with Dewey Cox discovered in a moment of introspection, preparing for his performance by remembering his entire life, but while it thus frames both the performance and the film itself by promising access to that interiority, the excessively heavy hand with which Tim Meadows explains what he’s doing (and that of the film as a whole) shows us the artificiality of the gesture. We are always reminded that because Dewey Cox’s external existence is a function of a narrative convention, he can have no internal existence. But we understand and recognize the gesture (and get caught in the joke) only because we already share in its assumptions, because the narrative language of the biopic expresses an aesthetic philosophy that it’s hard not to presume, even on levels we aren’t always aware of: the paradigm in which art is an expression of an interiority, the lived subjectivity of a great artist translated into a performed exteriority.

Walk Hard, then, is funny because it shows us this myth being created, shows (by implicating us within its failure) how the conventions of the musician -as-suffering-artist narrative theorizes the origin of external performance (as internal experience) which is, in practice, a function of a need to imagine, by unseeing, an internal reality. John C. Reilly’s ability to play this role, too, that of an empty authenticity, is masterful: we both respond to his sincerity and recognize the absence that it points to. We laugh, in other words, because we see and feel the thing we want, even as we register the way it’s tautologically produced by our desire for it in the first place.