John C. Reilly was mostly known as the guy who played alongside Will Ferrell in various masterpieces like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. A strong side-kick and straight man, he was pretty instrumental in being a foil to his various chararcters and giving them depth.
Someone decided to give him the headline in a film, and the result is legend.
This is the kind of film where at the beginning you see what is clearly backstage at a huge, huge concert - and an old, Johnny Cash style man standing facing a concrete wall, with his hand against it, almost praying. "He's going on in two minutes!" "Hold on, son, he has to go through his entire life story in his head first."
You know full well this is going to be a send-up and affectionate parody of every "behind the music" movie that documents the rise/fall/rise of some kind of musical icon.
Reilly plays "Dewey Cox", a young man from Alabama who as a boy wanted nothing but to play on his farm with his older brother, a piano protege and genius who is destined to be a famous composer, astronaut, and President of the United States, as he says "unless of course my life is cruelly and violently cut short by some kind of freak accident". Cue the montage of the two boys playing catch with rattlesnakes, arc welding in a straw-filled barn, and taunting bulls in the field.
Best part is, because we've seen enough of these films, they don't even try to hide the foreshadowing, even having characters idly narrate a dry commentary like that on how predictable the story is going to be at that moment.
To wind the story forward: the two boys decide to have a machete fight in the barn, and when Dewey's backswing makes the leather guard fly off, he really does cut his brother in half. Cue the "poor Alabama shack with the doctor making a house call" scene, but it's the 1950s, and there's nothing the doctor can do to attach the top half back to the bottom half. Cue the father angrily storming out with "The wrong kid died!" which becomes a catch-phrase for the rest of the film. Dewey leaves for the general store with the orders to get a candle and some butter and overhears two black men playing the blues on guitar. He says he's a fast learner, so they offer him the guitar, asking what a young white kid would know about the blues. Naturally he muffs the initial G chord, but within seconds is playing a decent slide guitar.
Within a few years, at 14, he goes ahead and plays the high school talent show, a sort of upbeat, teenybopper tune, which causes the pastor to immediately call him Satanic, every girl in the place to rip her shirt open, and delinquents to start fighting (I think the song is about holding hands, and every time he says "holding hands" people demand him to stop, saying "we know what you really mean!") As the town gathers in the front yard with torches and pitchforks to demand an end to all of this, Dewey angrily responds to yet another "the wrong kid died!" by walking out on his family, taking a 12 year old girl with him that he sang to in the audience. (For the record, 14 and 12 are played by Reilly and a woman in her early 30s, respectively).
All he needs is his music. Well, the "mopping floors for min wage in a dive bar cliche" leads to "the lead act can't go on, without a band there's no night club!" "Excuse me sir, but I know all the songs, and I play guitar a little". No pressure, but there are three people from the record company in the audience tonight (three very very obvious Hasidic Jews, two of which are named "L'Chaim" and "Mazeltov").
I'm not going to spoil the rest of the movie, but suffice it to say Dewey has his ups and downs, from leaving the first wife (who has another baby in her arms every five minutes and even as they're living in a nice house with great cars and he has a string of #1 hits says "you'll never make it, please take the offer of the slaughterhouse job back home") to drugs, arrest, spiritual discovery in India, protest songs, the disco variety show, and eventually reconciling with his 60 children.
What makes this movie work so deliciously is this: whereas Ferrell is manic and throws himself into a role with wild abandon, pushing at the edges of what will work and what won't - so does Reilly. But again, whereas Ferrell is Buddy the Elf in your face or screaming manically while rolling around in imaginary flames, Reilly takes absolutely ridiculous premises or scenes and plays them ramrod straight and martini-bone-dry. And that's what makes this movie work. It's so absolutely a send up of every cliche and in some cases goes into ridiculous parody, but because Reilly earnestly plays it straight, it makes it all the funnier. There's no mugging or winking to the camera via overacting while singing sweetly "I dream that you're blowing me...... kisses" to the backup singer he clearly has sexual tension with and will leave his wife for. When he channels his inner Bob Dylan and sings the most ridiculous parody of Dylan's nonsensical 60s gibberish, he does it with such a straight face you can't help but appreciate the send-up. To put it bluntly, because it's played so straight so well, and Reilly acts as well as he does, the parody works. Those around him can be ridiculous, from the most Jewish looking actors (I mean, come on, "Dreidl Mazeltov?") possible in Hasidic wigs playing music industry people to the over dramatic "walks in on drugs in bathroom" scenes - but he remains the movie's true magnetic north.
Turns out he can combine comic timing with some seriously decent acting, as well as having a great voice that carries a lot of pretty decent tunes.
There is one scene in which Reilly slips from straight 4/4 time on this, but it's to break the fourth wall on purpose. When he walks in on his band mates smoking marijuana in the bathroom, there's that melodramatic "Get out of here, Dewey! You don't want none of this shit!" while the folks in the bathroom are lolling around empty-eyed clearly on the fast track to hell. In the marijuana instance, Dewey politely makes excuses to turn down his non-offer offer anyway. "Oh, that's okay, I don't want to have a hangover tomorrow." "It doesn't give you a hangover". "I don't want to get addicted." "It isn't habit forming". "I don't want to risk my health". "It's safer than alcohol." "I don't want to die of an overdose." "You cannot OD on this stuff". "Sounds like it's expensive though." "Cheapest drug there is."
Another plus for some people - it has going for it is that there's an early hedonist backstage hotel scene in which there are men and women walking around nude, while Dewey is lounging around in his underwear. The women are just happens-to-be-nude nude, an occasional breast flash or shadow of pubic hair poking slightly over a hip. But the movie has Reilly sitting on the floor and an extended scene of a nude male lower half talking to him, with an average, normal-looking penis in the shot, gratuitously. For those women who have complained that female nudity is expected and male nudity never happens, this is a deliberate inversion of the normal trope (also, the male genitals are... well, average. Usually when someone gets his tackle out in a film, it's because it's the kind that resembles a baby's forearm in girth and hangs to mid-thigh.) This also means if you're not going to want to explain what that is to a six year old, choose your audience wisely.
The thing is, given that it so perfectly parodies every single biopic on musicians, you probably can guess 99% of the story anyway. But I am stopping here because this is a movie that just needs to be experienced and appreciated for what it is. It's Reilly's masterwork, his Freebird (at least to date) and an under-appreciated comedy gem.