Cash For Oscars.
There’s no such thing as ‘just a horror movie’. Horror films can be incisive examinations of the societal fears that hover just below the surface of group consciousness, ready to be unearthed through allegorical films of the fantastic. There is also no such thing as ‘just a comedy’, because sharp satire can illuminate important issues and arguments that are perhaps ignored in civilized and staid debate. There is such a thing as ‘just an action movie’, because most of those are made to keep the brain-dead Kill Bill fans alive and passive long enough to be organ harvested, and there is certainly no category other than ‘just’ a bio-pic. Bio-pics are overlong, saccharine, and so reliant on familiar cues and scenes that there’s generally no point to even watching them, unless you feel the need to use ‘rags to riches’ in a sentence immediately thereafter. I don’t need to see Johnny Cash buying his first guitar, or writing a song in an airplane hanger or someplace suitably lonely, or an inanimate object triggering a flashback scene. And I certainly don’t need to a revelatory look pass over a bored record executive’s face as he hears the birth of a brand new sound. It’s trite, it’s been done, and it’s not necessary.
The problem usually is that screenwriters try to force a person’s life into a three-act structure, when life doesn’t really work like that. Granted, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to life, but I’m generally not interested in seeing a woman’s distended vagina popping out a slime-caked baby head, followed by a lot of nothing ending in a slow death from complications arising from diabetes. Yet, the filmmakers inevitably try to force a character arc and narrative structure onto lives that never had those constraints. Most people don’t live their lives in a gradual parabolic curve that can be plotted out with color-coded scene cards and a bulletin board. For example, I was born an asshole, am living my life as an asshole, and will die an asshole with stomach cancer, which doesn’t make for a very interesting story. The same, it seems can be said for Johnny Cash. Essentially, the message I got from this film was that Johnny Cash was a big prick addicted to speed for most of his prime. That’s not to say that his story isn’t an interesting one; it is. But they force a life story into a two-hour film without a point, other than that Cash made some good music. It’s two hours of exposition, followed by a quick anti-drug message and a lot of bad singing.
That said, the film isn’t horrific. Occasionally, Joaquin Phoenix disappears into his role long enough that one forgets he’s a hair-lipped simpleton riding the coat-tails of his dead brother, though the role he inhabits isn’t really Johnny Cash, it’s Johnathan Rhys-Meyers in that bad Elvis TV movie. He doesn’t really look or act like Cash, mainly because Cash looked like James Dean made out of beef in his younger days, and a heap of clay in his older years. That’s OK, though, because he does sounds like Cash, in that he can’t sing in the same atonal, unnecessarily deep way that Cash did. Reese Witherspoon, however, is surprisingly good as June Carter, playing up the peppy sock-hop beauty queen act so hard it’s occasionally unclear which of the two characters is intended to be juiced up on meth-amphetamines, and which one is just retarded. Her Dolly Parton meets Danzig roar is spot on, too. The essential problem with the film, however, lies in their relationship. So much time is spent telling us the facts of Cash’s life, and dwelling on his pill-popping, that the romance between the two leads is left unmotivated. I can understand why Cash lusted for Carter, because everyone wants to do the class president in the pooper just so you have something to scrawl on the locker room wall, but I’m left confused as to why she would want to live her life with a mumbling dimwit. The film tries so hard to force his drug addiction and romance into a Hollywood movie format, but life doesn’t work that way. Walk The Line fails because it tells us the facts of Johnny Cash’s life, but it doesn’t tell us a story, or at least not one that I can believe.
Favorite Bio-pic? Mine's Frida, but the original, not the Julie Taymor version.