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Reilly takes Cox character on the road

Actor blurs line between parody and the real thing

It may be great for actor John C. Reilly’s film career to have “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” creating such a stir with its deft blend of satire and songmanship, but after seeing him perform in full Cox character onstage with his band, the Hard Walkers, at the Roxy in Hollywood Dec. 3, I’m not so sure about its effect on his mental health.

He doesn’t walk the line, he skips merrily over it, venturing into a parallel rock ‘n’ roll universe where Johnny Cash got lysergic with the Beatles in India, had an unfortunate Glen Campbell disco episode in the ’70s, then morphed into Brian Wilson during his “Smile”-induced hysteria and came out the other side as the elder Cash, concluding his “Beautiful Ride” as America’s beloved sagebrush sage.

Kids, don’t try that at home.

Not since the late, great Dick Shawn in “The 2nd Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World” has a performer disappeared so completely into his own stage creation — which Shawn, by the way, did really completely, by actually dying onstage in the middle of his (obviously) final performance.

So far, Cox/Reilly has only alluded to his own death in the song “Have You Heard the News (Dewey Cox Died),” but the health of an acting genius who can nail parts in everything from Sam Shepard plays to Will Farrell comedies, look great in a mariachi outfit, play a mean acoustic guitar, sing like Roy Orbison and dance like Elvis on acid definitely needs to be monitored.

With the announcement of the “Cox Across America” tour, which will include a stop at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Reilly/Cox and his ace band will continue obliterating the barriers between our collective memories of classic rock and our continuing foolishness about same. The glee that Reilly-as-Cox displays in the live set is like a dirty secret once kept quietly between friends before it suddenly gets posted on the Internet for all the world to see.

In the film, the job was to play Cox straight, but once the straitjacket of “straight” gets taken off and Reilly gets to rock his Cox off, the joyful abandon apparent on his face isn’t clearly Reilly or Cox but some weird metamorphosis of both that would take an army of James Liptons to explain.

If you didn’t listen too closely to the deliciously absurd lyrics, many co-written by Hard Walkers’ leader Mike Viola, it would be easy to imagine that out of context, the rapturous Roxy crowd — not unlike those who thought Spinal Tap and the Rutles were the real thing — would be none the wiser, responding to terrific songs that evoke the spirits of twangy rock greats from Buddy Holly to Conway Twitty. (Along with Viola, the songwriters include the recording project’s producer Michael Andrews, Van Dyke Parks, Dan Bern, Charlie Wadhams, Antonio Ortiz and Marshall Crenshaw.)

Lest Reilly get too wrapped up in his outsized role as a pop cliche, there’s nothing like a rock ‘n’ roll band to knock sense into a lead singer’s head, no matter how swollen with self-delusion, box office grosses or the giddy fun of pretending to be the guy who, as Cox likes to remind us, “Robert Dylan” himself imitated.

Label warning: It’s essential that no one explain to Reilly that’s he’s not Dewey Cox until the uniquely brilliant cross-country campaign for this funny and shrewd satire has run its course. For now, all one can ask is for Viola and the boys to keep their eyes on Reilly, but don’t knock the Cox.

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