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Walk the Line begins with a train running outside California’s Folsom Prison, its chugging morphing into the thick bass of “Cocaine Blues.” But you don’t get to hear the song, at least not yet. Writer-director James Mangold saves that particular re-creation for the film’s last chapter, when the late Johnny Cash gives his famous concert at the clink. And as performed by Joaquin Phoenix, it’s as soul-lifting as a number about doin’ drugs and shootin’ your woman down can be.
Yes, kids, we have another Ray. Nearly to the letter, actually: Walk the Line, based on Cash’s two autobiographies and co-written by Gill Dennis, spans roughly the same time period as Taylor Hackford’s Oscar-winning Ray Charles biopic—the mid-’40s to the late ’60s—and also focuses on the childhood death of a brother, followed by the singer’s determined rise from poverty to fame, then the subsequent debilitating drug addiction and domestic problems. It’s all capped, naturally, with a triumphant return.
But few viewers are likely to care about the similarities in the beloved artists’ made-for-the-movies stories. After all, this is a story arc that even VH1 has mastered. So let’s talk leads. Physically, Phoenix doesn’t have the striking resemblance to his subject that made Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Charles eerie. But he does duplicate Cash’s world-weary stare and magnetic stage presence well enough to disappear into the role—and without any forever-worn sunglasses to hide behind. (His co-star, on the other hand, though sufficiently charming, might as well have “REESE WITHERSPOON” stamped on her forehead.) Phoenix also does Foxx one better by singing Cash’s songs himself, a ridiculously risky move in portraying an icon whose voice was the thing.
But damn if the boy doesn’t pull it off. Phoenix’s baritone is deep, rich, and remarkably similar to the legend’s: Close your eyes during his rendition of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and see who comes to mind. In fact, the T Bone Burnett–produced musical performances are thrilling all around: “Jackson,” “Get Rhythm,” “Juke Box Blues.” Mangold loves to plant his camera either right in front of his actors’ faces or just behind them, aimed toward the audience. Whether it’s with Cash, wife June Carter Cash (Witherspoon, who sings more impressively than she acts), or frequent touring partner Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) onstage, Mangold’s claustrophobic style captures all the sweat, fun, and electricity of a good live show, the audience in a frenzy, the performers over the moon.
It’s just the kind of charged environment in which two people could fall in love. When they’re singing together, Phoenix’s Johnny and Witherspoon’s June certainly do radiate a chemistry befitting the performers’ 35 soulmated years together. But offstage, the attraction disappears—and because Walk the Line is less a profile of Cash than a chronicle of his developing relationship with Carter, this weakness isn’t insignificant. Cash had been a fan of hers since he was a kid, and when they meet as peers some 20 years later, he’s flat-out smitten by Carter’s good looks, perky personality, and quick intellect. They get to know each other better during multi-act tours that also include amphetamine dispenser Elvis: Cash casts stalkeresque stares and makes “baby”-heavy requests that Carter keep him company—and that’s about it.
Cash’s onstage charisma alone doesn’t seem like enough to draw the level-headed, twice-divorced Carter in, but as portrayed here he doesn’t have much else to offer. A negligent family man who’s also a hot-headed, slurring drunk and drug addict does not a thinking woman’s dreamboat make. Even when Carter turns merciful and decides to help Cash kick his habits, you can’t feel the love. There’s never a moment in which it’s clear the two have fallen into that celebrated ring of fire.
Speaking of which, Walk the Line’s worst scene is the genesis of that Carter-penned song: In a car but too distraught to drive, she leans on the wheel and whispers to herself, “It burns…burns…burns!” The composition of Cash’s songs is far more exhilarating, especially “Folsom Prison Blues,” a single that emerges quietly, with Cash bending over a guitar and tentatively sussing out the lyrics. It’s later performed for Sam Phillips, who’s unimpressed with the singer’s initial attempt at gospel and demands something original. Cash, of course, brings it—and so does Phoenix, cramming what seems like all the animosity and despair in the world into his delivery. This scene alone makes up for Walk the Line’s flaws, brilliantly capturing the moment that the Man in Black was born.
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic is also full of songs about self-medication and death. There’s, for example, the one whose chorus asks, “Do you ever take drugs so you can have sex without crying?” And the cheery ditty Silverman sings at an old folks’ home, which explains to the residents, “It’s not cold in here—you’re just dying!”
The 72-minute film is about an hour’s worth of Silverman’s stand-up, padded with a weak story line that enables it to pass as a movie: Silverman listens with a combination of annoyance and envy as two friends (Brian Posehn and Laura Silverman, the comedian’s sister) talk about their current projects. Dejected and without a real answer when they ask what she’s up to, Silverman tells them that she’s got a one-woman show: “It’s about, um, the Holocaust,” she stammers. “And AIDS. But it’s funny! It’s a real opus.” Silverman says that the show—“a musical,” she adds—is that night, then scrambles to actually put one on when her friends say they want to come.
And lo and behold, Silverman’s show actually is about the Holocaust (or “the alleged Holocaust”). And AIDS (“When God gives you AIDS—and God does give you AIDS, by the way—make lemon-AIDS!”). It’s also pretty funny, though not gut-bustingly so. The 34-year-old Silverman’s schtick, for those who don’t know, is that she’s pretty, smiley, and seemingly angelic—at least until the slurs, the sex jokes, and all manner of other objectionable thoughts start coming out of her mouth. Oh, and she pretty much cares only about herself. She was a highlight of Paul Provenza’s recent documentary, The Aristocrats, ad-libbing a memory of participating in her family’s lewd vaudeville act when she was a child, her bright face dropping as she seemed to slowly realize what really happened: “Joe Franklin raped me.”
Rape is a subject Silverman brings up again (twice) in Jesus Is Magic, along with strippers, Martin “Loser” King, and the granddaddy of American taboos, 9/11. Most of these jokes hit, and we learn just how much Silverman’s delivery matters when an awkward teenage girl tries to tell a few of them at the end of the film. There are, of course, limits to a persona as self-involved as Silverman’s—“You’re a star,” she tells her reflection, “and I’m a starfucker”—and it doesn’t take long for Jesus Is Magic to find them. Once Silverman has also covered the disparagement of Asians, Jews, and child lesbians, her shock punch lines get progressively less effective. The skits that interrupt Silverman’s act, written by the comedian and directed by “United States of Whatever” bard Liam Lynch, further deflate the movie, especially a laughless interlude in which Silverman throws a diva fit backstage and a very weird moment that involves an animated tear flying away from Silverman’s eye and then—what else?—acting as lubricant as a stagehand jacks off to her performance.
But then Silverman rhymes “Gary Busey” with “dykes love pussy,” and she’s got your attention again. The best of the songs woven throughout Jesus Is Magic is a ’60s-bubblegum number in which Silverman is heavily made-up and bouffanted, singing with sunshine in her voice about how much she loves her boyfriend—until she comes across two stern-looking African-American men just as she gets to a line about black guys calling each other the N-word. They let Silverman off the hook, and though this trifle ain’t perfect, you probably will, too.CP