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A fine ‘Line’: Phoenix, Witherspoon shine in Man in Black biopic

“Walk the Line”

Fox 2000 Pictures

Directed by James Mangold

Screenplay by Gill Dennis and James Mangold

Based on the books, The Man in Black and Cash: An Autobiography, by Johnny Cash

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick and Shelby Lynne

Rated PG-13/136 minutes

Opened Nov. 18, 2005

Three out of four stars

It might be easier to rave about “Walk the Line” if “Ray” hadn’t come out just last year.

In fact, it might be easier to rave about both the films if the whole genre hadn’t become so formulaic.

But it is-biopics are like romantic comedies these days.

“Walk the Line” is a thoroughly entertaining and well-acted look at country music legend Johnny Cash, but it is no exception to the rule.

A childhood marred by tragedy and hardship? Check. Defying the musical status quo? Check. A cheesy montage showing increasing success? Check. Philandering with other women while married with kids? Check. A debilitating drug problem? Check.

It’s all here, and it’s pretty much what we expect. “Line” bears such flagrant similarity to “Ray,” it’s almost as if it could have been made from a do-it-yourself manual. One wonders whether all historical music legends live exactly the same life.

But I don’t want to be too critical. If that’s the nature of the beast, then so be it. After an early sequence showing young Johnny (Ridge Canipe) and the tragic death of his older brother, Jack (Lucas Till), we see the adult Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) as he serves in the Air Force, marries his high-school sweetheart, writes songs and tries desperately to cut a record while working for peanuts as a door-to-door salesman.

Eventually, he gets his big break, goes on tour with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) and Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and has an on-again, off-again relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). The film features several tremendous musical numbers, and unlike Jamie Foxx in “Ray” (who only did minimal vocal work), Phoenix and Witherspoon do all their own singing, and do quite an impressive job of it. To be fair, that’s not a knock on Foxx; Ray Charles’ voice is decidedly harder to mimic, and it probably wouldn’t have been fair to ask him to try.

While the film has plenty of music to go around, director James Mangold smartly focuses mostly on the characters themselves rather than on the fame that surrounds them. The central performances of “Walk the Line” are the reason it works as it does. Phoenix nicely imitates Cash’s mannerisms and does a hell of a job with his voice, but his portrayal is not limited to just that-he finds the essence of the character, this “outlaw” of country music. While many impersonations remain static from start to finish, Phoenix doesn’t fall into such a trap. We see his countenance and his character change, for better or worse, as the film goes along.

This should come as no surprise. Phoenix has always been a good actor, from “Parenthood” to “Gladiator.” Not to be outdone, Witherspoon gives one of the finest and most mature performances of her career as well.

Mangold (“Identity,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “Cop Land”) is not a great director, but he does a nice job within the formula he’s given.

Too many elements of “Walk the Line” are too derivative of all other movies of this kind. Certain scenes, in fact, are eerily similar to those in “Ray,” “Beyond the Sea” and others. But on its own merits, this film is a success and a compelling portrait of one of music’s greatest legends.

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