Cash biopic walks the line, wobbles

This film about the Man in Black is too neat to capture the singer's complexities.

Johnny Cash gets the full bio treatment in "Walk the Line," which is being promoted as this year's "Ray." Like that film, it's consistently engrossing and filled with great music and strong performances - beginning with Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as Cash's second wife, June Carter. But as with "Ray," I often felt like I was viewing a vivid pageant of events rather than a selectively shaped microcosm. "Capote," the other big biopic this year, is my idea of an artful film biography: A crucial incident in the life is used to explain the life.

Still, who wouldn't want to see a movie about how Johnny Cash became Johnny Cash? After all, The Man in Black didn't always wear black. Although director James Mangold and his co-screenwriter, Gill Dennis, knew Cash and Carter, and based the script on Cash's two autobiographies, the film doesn't have an "authorized" feel to it. If anything, Cash acts much worse than the movie's other bad behavers - which is saying plenty.

After a brief prologue where Cash steadies himself to play to the inmates at Folsom Prison, "Walk the Line" gets going in rural '40s Arkansas and ends, more than two hours later, in 1968. In between there's enough heartbreak to satisfy even the most gluttonous appetite. Just for starters: As a young boy, Cash's revered older brother dies prompting his father (Robert Patrick) to exclaim, "He took the wrong son." (Patrick also played Elvis's father in a TV miniseries. What's next on the agenda - Roy Orbison's dad?)

Events takes a sharp turn for the better when Cash finds his true voice - aggrieved and dark as a cellar - while auditioning for Sam Phillip's Sun Records. This is followed by some birth-of-rock barnstorming with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis (he offers Cash some chili fries), a marriage that dwindles as his stardom shines and, throughout it all, drugs and booze. What saves our boy is Carter, the no-nonsense daughter of country music's First Family. The stars do their own singing, and they have an easy rapport both on and off stage.

But this film is, finally, too conventional to account for Cash's jagged complexities. There is a telling, throwaway moment about halfway through when Cash has been busted and his wife sneers, "Now you won't have to work so hard to make people think you've been in jail." Cash was a true anomaly: a poseur who was also the genuine article. A better movie would have made that contradiction its core. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for some language, thematic material, and depiction of drug dependency.

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