The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Walk The Line

A good biopic makes you want to run out and read more about the subject to fill in the blanks. This movie made me want to run out and get an insulin shot. The movie is sometimes mistakenly touted as a biography of Johnny Cash. It is more accurately a highly filtered retelling of “How did Daddy meet Mommy?” by the son of John and June Carter.

John Carter Cash acted as executive producer on this film, and his adoration and personal biases show through in every decision about what to show, what to condense, and what to leave out. He was born in 1970 and the movie’s action stops in 1968, which should give you pause right there. The boy didn’t want to include anything that he had personal experience with, as that might taint the perfection of his rose-colored fantasy.

The movie starts out wrong with the casting of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny. Cash was a big (“strapping”) 6’2” guy with chiseled features and sunken eyes, a habitual brooding look on his face that made you think he was capable of violence at any time. This was a guy who could walk into a prison and look hardened criminals in the eye, silently communicating “Don’t mess with me. I’m as bad as you are.” Joaquin Phoenix is a slight man, standing maybe 5’7” or 5’8”. He has a pretty-boy face with long fluttering eyelashes and a different variety of brooding expression that makes him seem to be pouting that things aren’t going the way he wished they would.

Much has been made of Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar-winning performance as June Carter. She is fine, but is saddled by a role as the perfect Earth-mother rescuing angel. While we know she goes through two divorces before marrying Johnny, they aren’t important and obviously couldn’t have any contributing factors from her. Surprisingly, Reese actually sings better than June on her one solo number early in the film!

Following the Lifetime Movie of the Week format, every event and emotion is foreshadowed and telegraphed before it gets there. Every line of dialog is written by a Hallmark employee. And every conflict is paraded out for one brief scene and then squirreled away, never to be heard from again. There are so many examples that I have a hard time picking one. Johnny has a conflicted relationship with his dad that brews to the inevitable showdown scene. Then Dad disappears until the end of the movie, when all seems to be well and everybody is living together in peace. Johnny faces seemingly serious trouble from a drug bust, complete with press reports and time in a jail cell. Then we see him back home and it’s never mentioned again. Johnny has a drunken, pill-fueled collapse onstage in a concert, but the business aspects of this behavior are only briefly mentioned in passing by his record company late in the film.

But the most egregious example of the “conflict and drop” ploy is the entire plot of Johnny’s marriage to his first wife, Viv. John Carter Cash made sure that this shadowy woman who had the audacity to stand between his mom and his dad is seen as a shrewish, non-understanding, selfish woman. She lasts just long enough for a big crying scene and then disappears… Never to be seen from or heard about again. We have to take it on faith that a divorce occurred somewhere in there (although it would be just as reasonable to assume that she died).

The film is also laughable in its portrayal of song writing. Song lyrics come to the characters perfectly formed in long flowing lines, always based on a single image or phrase that is carefully set up in the script. June is crying about her tortured feelings for tortured Johnny and pulls over in the car, whispering to herself “It burns, burns, burns!” Then we see her composing the song on her autoharp at home. (No mention of her co-writer on the real song, Merle Kilgore). Johnny sees a film about Folsom Prison and next we see him picking out chords on his guitar and making up the words to Folsom Prison Blues in a long stream of finished lyrics. June tells Johnny that he is unreliable on tour and won’t walk the line and we cut to him singing “I Walk The Line.”

This review is already way too long and I haven’t talked about the light and comfortable depiction of Johnny’s drunkenness and drug addiction (the main symptoms are that he just gets a little sleepy from time to time and professes his love for June a lot), the cheesy flashback setup that frames the main storyline, the glossing over of his business success, and so much more. The movie is treacle – thick and syrupy. All in all, I’d rather listen to the records.

(Oh, by the way… Having seen this, I can appreciate Jon Stewart’s Academy Awards crack about Walk The Line being a remake of Ray with white people. The number of parallels in tone, story, and construction are outrageous. It really is close to being the same movie.)

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