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Walk the Line

Walk the Line arguably boasts two of the most dazzling, Oscar-worthy performances of the year from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. It's just a shame the biopic isn't as brave. After all, Johnny Cash wasn't ''The Man in Black'' just for his wardrobe alone.


The story of the late, great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), married and straight out of the army, struggles with his music, finally finding his patented blend of country, blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood, Cash sings songs about death, love, treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour, he also meets and falls for his future wife, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film's core but unfortunately can't quite overcome Walk the Line's formulaic nature.


Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping, spellbinding performances since, well, Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever, but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity, doing all of their own singing, as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first, but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress, and she'll be yours, too, by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter, as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas, then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together.


While good for the actors, biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It's hard to highlight a person's life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately, director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn't because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem, instead, is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality, his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.