‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’ Review: Daniel Radcliffe Gets Weird
In 1993, Leslie Nielsen released his autobiography, The Naked Truth. A journeyman dramatic actor, Nielsen became an improbable leading man in late middle age, thanks to his casting by the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams in a string of their zany comedies. After a successful supporting turn in Airplane!, the Zuckers team made him the eye of several of their subsequent slapstick hurricanes, starting with the 1980s television series Police Squad! and then its trilogy of big-screen follow-ups, The Naked Gun franchise.
Nielsen’s profile became big enough that he began headlining comedies outside the Zucker brothers’ purview — and landed a book deal to write his life story. But since he was known for doing outlandish spoofs, that’s what he wrote: A fictional tale that turned his actual journey through Hollywood into an abject farce. If you purchased the book looking for genuine insights into how a struggling actor became an icon of comedy, you’d be out of luck (and possibly even pissed off, which is the tone taken by a couple of the book’s reviews on Amazon). If you just want to laugh at the absurdity of the celebrity memoir form, The Naked Truth is an amusing trifle — albeit one that eventually wears out its welcome. (288 pages is a long time to riff on a single joke.)
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, the new and almost entirely fictitious biopic of “Weird Al” Yankovic reminded me a lot of Nielsen’s The Naked Truth, both in its structure and in its impact: I enjoyed it, but only to a point, and in the end it did feel like a solid joke stretched to the absolute breaking point. It probably doesn’t help in Weird’s case that the film was based on a solid but much shorter joke: A Funny or Die sketch from 2010 that sent up the clichés of musical biopics in a fake trailer that lasted a little under three minutes. The gag of imagining the amiable, goofy Yankovic as a tortured genius from an abusive home works — until it eventually doesn’t.
To be sure, Weird Al is the ideal candidate for this kind of movie. Weird plays like the cinematic equivalent of one of his parody songs: It takes a familiar structure and changes all the words. Here Al Yankovic (an extremely game Daniel Radcliffe, taking over from Aaron Paul, who played Al in the original Funny or Die short) suffers endless torment at the hands of his cruel factory-worker father (Toby Huss), who tells his sweetly innocent son that changing the words of a pre-existing song is a blasphemous act he will never allow in his house. You can imagine how Al’s dad reacts when the young Yankovic buys an accordion to further his musical ambitions.
A great pop star’s miserable childhood is a staple of musical biopics — and of the earlier biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which cast John C. Reilly as a Johnny Cash-esque country legend whose life is a hilarious parade of worn-out tropes. Walk Hard and Weird are not precisely the same film — after all, Dewey Cox was a fictional construct and Al Yankovic is a real man, even if Radcliffe’s version bears little resemblance to reality — but they nonetheless occupy a very similar space in the world of comedy, and Walk Hard got there almost 15 years earlier. There are times when Weird does feel almost as stale and familiar as the movies it’s supposed to mock.
As such, Weird plays best when it ventures away from Walk Hard territory, and leans into its subject’s absurd brand of humor, as when Al gets in trouble for attending an underage polka party in high school, or when he becomes infuriated that Michael Jackson releases a parody of his “original” song “Eat It.” (According to Weird, Jackson parodied Al, not the other way around.) These sequences feel like less a rehash of Walk Hard and more like a spiritual successor to Weird Al’s own 1989 comedy UHF, which cast the real Yankovic as a lovable weirdo who takes over control of a local TV station.
Fans of Weird Al and his quirky sense of humor will likely enjoy the off-kilter take on his rise to fame in the film’s first half. The second half of the story is where the joke begins to run thin. What initially seems like a cute one-scene gag where Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) takes an extremely sexual interest in Weird Al devolves into an unfunny and, frankly, weird subplot that overtakes the entire story. Madonna quickly becomes the Yoko Ono who breaks up his band and introduces him to alcohol, possibly all in the interest of having him parody one of her songs. (Within the constructed mythology of Weird, artists who are parodied by Al receive a huge bump in sales because of his enormous popularity.)
The Madonna storyline probably wouldn’t have worked with anyone, up to and including the real Madonna, in the role. But Wood seems completely lost at sea trying to play this Machiavellian version of the Material Girl. Radcliffe isn’t much of a comedian either — but as Leslie Nielsen proved in those ZAZ comedies, that can sometimes work in this kind of over-the-top gag fest, where having a lead who plays the material sincerely amplifies the lunacy. Radcliffe sells a lot of Weird with his earnest commitment and his total refusal to wink at the camera.
The naked truth is that Weird: The Al Yankovic Story seems destined for a fate like Leslie Nielsen’s autobiography or Al’s own UHF: As a cult object beloved by a few for the sheer oddness of its perspective and sense of humor. (The final title card alone makes it something of a minor triumph.) Weird won’t make anyone forget Walk Hard, but it might make some folks go and break out their old Weird Al records for the first time in a while. I recommend Dare to Be Stupid.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is exclusive to the Roku Channel.