The story of WALK THE
LINE is like so many other show-biz bio-pics. If you've seen more
than a handful of them, you know what to expect. A star will rise
from humble beginnings, have a hit, get more famous,
start abusing one substance or another, garner even more fame, have it
all come tumbling down, and then, of course, be redeemed with an
inevitable comeback. Unless the moment where it all comes
tumbling down is a
plane crash or some other lethal tragedy. What always matters
these films are the stars: Jennifer Lopez's sweet and lovely
performance in SELENA, Gary Busey's career-starting turn as Buddy Holly.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon raise WALK THE LINE above the average musical biopic by their portrayals of Johnny Cash and June Carter, musical partners, close friends, lovers (for one night, at least) and eventual husband and wife. Phoenix plays Cash a little too pathetically, and mumbles or whispers most of his dialogue, and yet, he still manages to deliver a convincing performance as Cash, a man seemingly "born to lose", to quote one of Cash's best early songs. Phoenix doesn't try to imitate Cash while singing classics like "Walk the Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues", but rather approaches the songs honestly and with feeling, and by doing so, he manages a close approximation of Cash's unique low-key, one-note-fits-all approach to music.
However, Reese Witherspoon outshines him, as well as just about everything else in the film. During the film, there are moments where you just simply cannot like the self-abusive Johnny Cash. But Witherspoon makes you believe that there is something inside of the man worth loving, a goodness June Carter sees, even if nobody else does. Witherspoon also makes makes you fall in love with her character not because of her looks or sex appeal but by her deeply felt portrayal of a good, honest, loving and strong woman who will "walk the line" for a friend in dire need of help. Her scenes with Phoenix are dynamite, filled with emotional turmoil just hidden beneath the surface, whether they are chatting on a tour bus or trading corny patter on stage. And their duets of outstanding songs like the classic "Jackson" and Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" are surprisingly good. Yes, they will make you want to revisit your Johnny Cash CDs (or dust off your old LPs) but the Phoenix - Witherspoon versions are also completely enjoyable on their own; the chemistry the two leads have is fully there in the music too.
The film is overlong - what movie isn't these days? - the story features few surprises and the portrayals of Cash's contemporaries like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis are about as unconvincing as you could get without casting the Singer Midgets as The Carter Family. But the music is superb, and the leads, especially Witherspoon, make it worth the long walk down that line. - JB