Pop quiz, hot shot!
Name an actor capable of crying while speaking in Yiddish with a Southern accent… Keep thinking. I’ll wait… As far as I know, the only actor to have accomplished this impressive trifecta is John C. Reilly in the elaborate and criminally underrated musical biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. In it, Reilly plays the lead, Dewford Randolph “Dewey” Cox. The fact that he played the title character is remarkable because Reilly has made a career for himself playing supporting roles — often in great movies — but supporting roles nonetheless.
This workmanlike phase of his career began in the late eighties with his role in Casualties of War and continued through the nineties with appearances in Hoffa, Days of Thunder, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. During this time, Reilly also shined as a member of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stock ensemble, particularly as the dimwitted porn actor Reed Rothchild in Boogie Nights and the well meaning police officer Jim Kurring in Magnolia. The peak of his supporting role phase came in 2002 when the actor appeared in three of the five films nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Picture: Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York; The Hours; and the eventual Best Picture winner, Chicago, which also brought Reilly his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.
Naturally, at this point Reilly began to reassess his career choices. He told Charlie Rose that while he never felt any acute desire for recognition (although he admitted it was nice to have Martin Scorsese praise his work), he was beginning to desire bigger parts. It simply occurred to him that as long he was going to work his ass off, he might as well be the first one billed.
The next phase in Reilly’s career was dominated by comedy, particularly his two popular collaborations with Will Ferrell. During this time, he starred in Walk Hard, a role which required him to be in nearly every scene, it being a parody biopic and all. I believe that this role allowed Reilly to bring all his unique talents to bear. In addition to the previously mentioned scene with the crying and the Yiddish, he sings and plays guitar, does some erotic carpentry, plays ages from fourteen to seventy-five, imbibes every drug under the sun (inspiring him to create punk rock, have trippy cartoon visions, go to rehab, etc.), curses at a monkey and accuses it of coasting on his own success, moonlights as an advocate for midgets, and is sexually desensitized enough that he can talk on the phone totally unfazed by a naked penis dangling mere inches from his face.
Oh, yeah. And he does all this handicapped by an inability to smell, tragically losing it after accidentally cutting his brother in half with a machete. Roger Ebert, despite finding the amount of penis in the film excessive, praised Reilly’s ability to add depth to the character within the project’s silliness. He noted that “some scenes actually approach real sentiment. Reilly is required to walk a tightrope; is he suffering or kidding suffering, or kidding suffering about suffering? That we’re not sure adds to the appeal.”
Unfortunately, Walk Hard was not a financial success. Reilly claimed this was partially because the 2007-2008 writers’ strike prevented him from adequately promoting the project. Regardless, Reilly continued to shine in non-leading roles in films like Cyrus and Cedar Rapids. He did find leading roles online, in videos like Funny or Die’s Drunk History: Nikola Tesla, playing Tesla to Crispin Glover’s sinister Thomas Edison.
Adult Swim also gave Reilly his own TV show, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule. To be sure, Brule is pathetically inept, conducting a healthy living talk show on public access despite problems like an overpowering fear of puppets and an occasional failure to remember what the letter “s” looks like. Yet somehow, in Reilly’s hands the character becomes totally sympathetic. While we laugh at his desire to have a baby (and his impossibly funny trip to a fertility clinic) we really, really feel for the man and just want him to settle down and be happy. Again, here we see Reilly’s skill at what Ebert called walking the tightrope between kidding and suffering.
If you haven’t guessed yet, I’ll just spell it out: I like John C. Reilly a lot. To me, he’s one of a few film actors who can really do anything. His incredible knack for character and story can effectively support the piece without being dominant, or drive it from beginning to end. He can thrive in a messy public access show, like Check It Out!, or a thirty million dollar (fake) Hollywood epic, like Walk Hard. I’m excited that he is starring once again in this month’s Wreck-It Ralph, and I’m really hoping that the film is successful. Actors only get a few chances to carry big films, so this is an important project for Reilly. He will always have a career doing supporting roles, or on Broadway — he’s too good to ever be unemployed. But if Reilly is ever to become a leading man, lots of folks gotta buy a ticket to see, or in this case, hear him. So, it’s up to us: Let’s make John C. Reilly a leading man! I can’t be the only one demanding Walk Hard 2: Walk Harder!