Everyone wants to know if Joaquin "It's Not a Harelip" Phoenix can pull off Johnny Cash. Physically, the resemblance is striking enough. Likewise, Phoenix's mannerisms are more than convincing. But when Phoenix opens his mouth, things get dicey. It's not that his accent is bad, and he's a credible drunk. What nags are the times his interpretation comes off as... well, sorta developmentally disabled. The apex of this disturbance comes during a pillow-talk scene between Cash and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), in which he teases her with peanuts (yep), cackling like a halfwit as Witherspoon drawls, "You're a mean man, Johnny Cash! A mean man!" That's not okay.
Otherwise, the film wisely chooses its range of focus to be the period leading up to his performance at Folsom Prison. Nonetheless, the first half of the film drags, during which his brother dies, his father is established as an a-hole, Johnny joins the army, gets married, has kids, and sucks at being a door-to-door salesman.
Things pick up when he begins his stage career, and June Carter is finally introduced. It's then that the film finds its identity as a love story. It's not the most scintillating love story, however, and famous protagonists notwithstanding, it lacks drama, most of the slack for which is picked up by Cash's downward spiral.
The most rousing scenes take place onstage, particularly when the couple does "Jackson." Boldly, the actors are really singing, and though they'll get inevitable flack for simply not actually being the artists they imitate, they're surprisingly proficient. But ultimately, the film never resonates—maybe due to the film's insistence on passing over glamorization and scintillation in favor of loyalty to biographical facts (it's totally annoying to be reminded that Cash wrote a song about going to prison, never having been). Hey, honesty's okay—it's just not as fun.