Grab-bag movie parodies have been bonanzas ever since that slapstick disaster epic Airplane! in 1980. Yet few have matched that film's nonstop hilarity until this week's Walk Hard, starring John C. Reilly as fictional rock-'n'-roller Dewey Cox in an unbuttoned burlesque of musical biopics like Walk the Line.
"No woman ever walks into these movies unless the hero is going to make her a mistress or marry her," says the producer and co-writer, Judd Apatow, "because no one can enter a scene in this kind of movie who isn't essential to the story."
The movie sizzles with gags that are equally smart and silly. And in Walk Hard, as in Airplane!, these machine-gun jokes coalesce because they come from a tight-knit group's sensibility.
Airplane! was made by a literal creative family - brothers David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams. Walk Hard was made by collaborators as close as family: the Apatow gang, a group of filmmakers and unconventional actors who forged friendships on the short-lived NBC high school dramedy Freaks and Geeks.
"After Freaks and Geeks and [Apatow's next series] Undeclared got canceled ... he thought the networks were saying not only could he never write something that could be embraced by the mainstream," says actor David Krumholtz, "but the actors he liked were so freakish, so not your typical blond blue-eyed perfect things, that they would never be accepted by the mainstream."
Apatow had the last laugh. Producing, writing or directing a spate of hit comedies, he's proven you can vitalize arrested-adolescent sex comedies by mining the depths of fresh, out-there lead actors such as Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Jonah Hill (Superbad).
Walk Hard's writer-director, Jake Kasdan, made last year's film The TV Set, which eviscerated network-TV culture. But TV was the birthplace of the Apatow gang, which started life with Freaks and Geeks in 1999. Apatow wrote and directed episodes of this unusually wry teen dramedy. And as executive producer, he recruited a bunch of frisky talents in front of and behind the camera, including Kasdan, who directed several episodes and the pilot; Rogen, who was a regular; and Krumholtz, who was a guest and has gone on to parts in Superbad and Walk Hard.
Apatow had cast Krumholtz at age 20 as a bumbling psychotherapist in a pilot called Sick in the Head. When it wasn't picked up, Apatow, knowing the young East Coast actor was a lonely guy, asked him to hang out on the set of Freaks and Geeks, "just to be around all the interesting, funny people there." Eventually, Krumholtz landed the part of a collegiate heartbreaker on the episode "Noshing and Moshing." He gives the "burn-out" heroine hope by saying that in high school he was a wash-out, but in college he's "the handsome, dashing Jew" - the figure Krumholtz plays now as the hero of the CBS hit Numb3rs.
Krumholtz's history typifies the way Apatow has turned his professional life into a workplace comedy that actors and other filmmakers want to be a part of. They talk on the phone and visit each other's sets - and their mutual trust and affection give his films their comic power. "Judd's whole thing is comedy is hard because it's natural," says Krumholtz. "He encourages people to be themselves. Seth Rogen is very akin to the character he played in Knocked Up." In Knocked Up, playing a man who grows up almost in spite of himself, Rogen became a star.
Now, in Walk Hard, Apatow is making a star out of one of the best character actors in the business, John C. Reilly (he co-starred in the Apatow-produced Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby). Reilly has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination (so has the title song); the film should do wonders for the visibility of director Kasdan. And Apatow couldn't be happier: It's not just that a rising tide lifts all ships, but that any one ship can lift Apatow's whole flotilla.
"Collaborating with the right director is easy," says Apatow from Los Angeles. "And Jake was teaching me how to direct when he directed the pilot of Freaks and Geeks."
Apatow cut his teeth as a writer on such great series as Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show and The Ben Stiller Show. Indeed, Apatow calls Walk Hard "a $30 million version of a skit from The Ben Stiller Show," such as the one in which Bruce Springsteen, the hardest-working white man in show business, plays an impromptu four-hour set and then "mops the floor and refills the ketchup bottles."
But Kasdan came up with the idea for Walk Hard. He says, "It was mostly that it would be fun to do a fake biopic as though it were a real biopic with all the trappings and conventions about a fictional rock star who had this absurdly dynamic life." The target wasn't Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or Selena, but "taking people's extraordinary lives and trying to condense them into a 90- to 120-minute movie."
If Apatow gives Kasdan credit for teaching him how to direct, Kasdan says he learned about "working in a joke-intensive style, writing to specific actors, and embracing improvisation" from Apatow. And Kasdan found Apatow's skill at "figuring out in a moment what someone's best comic move is" essential for Walk Hard, which uses a multitude of star cameo appearances (often from gang members like Paul Rudd) as comic paprika.
Apatow says all biopics "suffer from a soft middle" and Walk Hard is no exception: "Our solution was to make that middle section really hysterical. You don't notice nothing's happening for 10 minutes when you're watching, for no apparent reason, Jack Black as Paul McCartney and Paul Rudd as John Lennon!"
Apatow's movies, in Krumholtz's words, tend to be about "immature men" suddenly facing a turning point and "confirming what women have always believed deep down inside: that men can be cured of their adolescence." Kasdan has taken a somewhat darker view; he dove into middle-age angst with The TV Set.
But Walk Hard is full of adolescent high jinks - including stupid-funny closeups of male genitalia in a hotel party scene. And the teenage vitality of all the Apatow gang films, or maybe just their lack of jadedness, suggests that its members want to keep their group identity going for the long haul.
Airplane's "ZAZ team" eventually drifted apart. (David Zucker and Abrahams reunited to work on Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4; they were hardly milestone reunions.) But eight years after he first did Freaks and Geeks, Kasdan says, "I keep working with Judd and this group because I love doing it and he's one of my closest friends. It's a friendship born out of working together. He's a brilliant producer. I'd go so far as to say he's about as good as anyone doing it."
FOR JUDD APATOW, THE GANG'S ALL HERE
The writers and directors in Judd Apatow's brain trust aren't the only ones who have stayed with him through his projects. Like filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen and Wes Anderson, Apatow employs a stable of regular players.
Apatow credits: Pineapple Express (in production), Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks.
Rogen rose to stardom in last summer's Knocked Up - and co-wrote Superbad. But the everyman actor has been with Apatow since his first big project, NBC's Freaks and Geeks.
Apatow credits: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad.
After small but memorable parts in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (he wanted the sparkly platforms) and Knocked Up, Hill was rewarded with the lead in Superbad as the sleazy friend almost everyone had in high school.
Apatow credits: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Unlike other Apatow actors, Rudd may look the part of a Hollywood heartthrob, but he's more at home as a slightly unhinged manchild than the star of a romantic comedy.
Apatow credits: Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Freaks and Geeks, The Cable Guy.
Apatow's gang is mostly a boys' club, but the scene-stealing Mann holds her own against the most testosterone-stoked goofballs. And she has plenty of experience even off-screen; she's married to Apatow.