Friday, November 18, 2005

The Man in Black

In light of my recent, babbling posts on movies, I'll keep this one short. Went to see Walk the Line, which charts the early career of Johnny Cash, mostly through the prism of his playful, deeply felt, torturous courtship of his eventual wife, June Carter.

I thought A.O. Scott was a bit tough on it today. He's right that it succumbs to many of the usual biopic hazards, including that "Between the humble beginnings and the eventual immortality come events that seem almost interchangeable, more like stock situations than lived experiences."

But I don't think he emphasizes enough the tremendous lead performances. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as Johnny and June) are both mortal locks to be nominated for Oscars, and deservedly so, not just because they play real-life figures with hard-luck-to-big-fame story arcs, which we know the Academy loves. (Someday, an actor will play a developmentally disabled boy who overcomes a childhood mining coal with a plastic spoon three miles into the earth somewhere in Kentucky, loses his leg in a blast but still manages to lead his high school football team to an unlikely state title against a team of more privileged players who get to use things like helmets, pays his own way through Harvard, becomes a trailblazing civil rights advocate, but after doing more good than most of us could in ten lifetimes gives that up to follow his true calling as a cross-dressing dancer, and expires from a terrible disease that he finds out originated way back in his coalmining days -- a disease that could be cured if it weren't for the evil pharmaceutical companies, who he spends the last 45 minutes of the movie fighting in a feverish legal battle, only to expire on the witness stand. When that day comes, the members of the Academy won't wait for awards night -- they'll show up, en masse, at the set on the last day of filming and hand out the statue right there. They'll just record that moment and show it on awards night, right after the film about the "tech awards" that they gave out the month before at a middle school gymnasium outside of Sacramento.)

The story of Cash's childhood and early career is certainly too distilled here, but the focus of that distillation is his relationship with Carter, and Phoenix and Witherspoon are both good enough to make the movie function quite successfully as a love story. Forget the inevitable made-for-TV-movie moments, and the sometimes silly, way-too-neat emotionalism of the last half hour (aside from the scene of Cash's performance in Folsom Prison, which is brilliantly done), and see it for their turns. Not a great movie, for sure, but two great performances.

What did I say about keeping this short?


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