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Cashing In

"Walk the Line" is an entertaining but predictable biopic.

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The likeness is due in some degree to unavoidable coincidence, but lack of imagination is also partly to blame. No matter how you explain it, the inescapable similarity is ever present, nagging the viewer with the notion that, true or not, "Walk the Line" is simply a crass attempt to, well, cash in on a genre.

Imagine "Ray," but about a white man, and it isn't difficult to predict what happens in "Walk the Line." After a brief introduction, we revisit the Arkansas boyhood in 1944, when young J.R. Cash (Ridge Canipe) loses his brother, much as young Ray Charles Robinson does in his movie. From here we find Cash leaving home on a bus and going into the Army in Germany during the Korean War, where solitude, homesickness and the chance screening of a prison movie stir the songwriter in him. Married and living in Memphis after his hitch in the service, Cash fails as a door-to-door salesman while rehearsing a gospel band in his spare time.

Though his hymns get him nowhere, the tunes he wrote in the Army wow Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), who signs the band on the spot and cuts a hit record with them. From there we hit the road. Cash tours with other up-and-coming pop stars of the day, including future love interest Carter, Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Elvis (Tyler Hilton) among others (country fans will be tickled to see Waylon Jennings played by his son Shooter). The burgeoning superstars inspire and mentor each other, for good and bad. Cash starts taking pills and develops an addiction that quickly breaks up the tour and lands him in jail.

Just like "Ray," we get an airport arrest scene. We hear Cash argue with his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and his lover. We see him toss and turn in the sweat of hangover and recovery. Of course this is all supposed to be true, and it's not Johnny Cash's fault that his early carrer so closely resembles that of Ray Charles. So what do you do? Well, in a better world, if you are working with millions of dollars, you have the decency to try a little harder.

Johnny Cash's life and career were long. Again, like "Ray," "Walk the Line" concentrates on the first wild and famous years. This is not surprising because the latter portion, beginning in the mid-'70s, is less immediately suggestive of a plot for a hit movie. Cash struggled in an ever-changing market to keep his commercial success but ended up with a hard-won critical respect. He eventually (and unexpectedly) wound up in the arms of the MTV generation (culminating with a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"). They may have been less easy to sell, but these hardscrabble years could have been drawn upon for a more original movie.

"Walk the Line" ends just before the specter of uncertainty looms and just as the first spark of rebelliousness emerges. It's a simplistic version of a life. Truth, as any movie would have it, is debatable of course. What's not debatable is how easily "Line" fits the paradigm of the blockbuster, and during its worst moments, that of the made-for-television movie. So can it possibly be true? Perhaps a better question: Would Cash have approved? Would he have quietly pocketed his profit as a responsible performer, or would he have given it the middle finger? We won't be able to surmise from this movie, which doesn't offer that kind of scrutiny. The problem with "Walk the Line" is that's all it does. (PG-13) 136 min. ** S

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