Film Review: “Rock of Ages”

by Jason LeRoy on June 15, 2012

starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Malin Akerman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston

written by: Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb

directed by: Adam Shankman

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language

The tagline for Rock of Ages, “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” is more than just one of its seemingly endless supply of ’80s cover songs: it is both an accurate description of this shamelessly overstuffed celebrity singalong spectacle, as well as an implicit plea to the audience to manage its expectations. The last time director Adam Shankman adapted a stage musical for the screen, it was the rousing Hairspray (which, of course, had already been a movie). In addition to being a great musical, Hairspray had a real subject matter, with its addictive original songs performed against the backdrop of social, racial, and economic disparity in 1960s Baltimore. Rock of Ages, on the other hand, is dumber than a sack of shit. It is about nothing more than the so-called spirit of rock and roll, which it translates as basically “Have fun and be nice to each other.” RAWK!

In a storyline as old as show business but seen most recently in the comparatively subdued Burlesque, the ever-sunny Julianne Hough (who co-starred in Burlesque) stars as Sherrie, a sweet girl from Oklahoma who packs up her wild rock records and buys a one-way bus ticket to Hollywood to become a singer. Sherrie’s last name is Christian. This should give you a hint about the first musical number, an awkward bus singalong that seems designed to break you down right away. Once you’ve cringed through that, everything else seems smooth in contrast. Within moments of getting off the bus in the heart of the Sunset Strip and being swarmed by a trio of singing hookers (classic L.A.), Sherrie is mugged by a ruffian that steals all those records she doesn’t seem like the kind of girl who would enjoy in the first place.

Fortunately, dreamy barback Drew (Diego Boneta) witnesses Sherrie’s mugging and rushes to her aid. He immediately shepherds her into “The Bourbon Room,” the sweaty rock club at which he is employed, and talks the owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin at his most miscast and bloated), into giving her a job as a cocktail waitress. Russell Brand plays Lonny, the Stanley Tucci to Baldwin’s Cher. And before you can say “wagon wheel watusi,” Drew and Sherrie are prancing around the club making goo-goo eyes at each other and singing impassioned duets in the middle of crowded record stores. But when Drew’s band gets the opportunity to open for Arsenal, a stadium-packing rock band playing a tiny show at the Bourbon as a favor from its frontman, the mythical Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), Drew’s brush with commercial fame — and Sherrie’s brush with Stacee — threatens to destroy their pure young love forever.

This is a jukebox musical of the most brazen variety, but with its celebrity-karaoke format and immense fondness for mash-ups, it can’t help but seem like a supersized ’80s-themed episode of Glee (which Shankman has directed twice). Like Glee, it is all about stunt casting; one cast member, Mary J. Blige, achieves the Glee twofer of being both stunt-cast and the token black female trotted out to wail soulfully at the end of each number. This is Blige’s biggest screen work to date (I’ll believe that long-rumored Nina Simone biopic when I see it), and while she doesn’t make much of an impression, it at least becomes clear that she had a dedicated army of tireless gays arguing ferociously over which wigs and sequined jumpsuits they could force her to wear onscreen (the final answer: ALL OF THEM).

Okay, so Miss Tom Cruise. There seems to be quite an effort underway to make you think that Tommy Girl is some kind of revelation in the role of Stacee Jaxx, the hedonistic yet angst-ridden rock god. And yes, we do get to hear a lot more of that sweet tenor we first heard during the “Wise Up” singalong in Magnolia. But unlike that performance, this is not Oscar-caliber work. When Cruise is not singing, he just fixes his head into a cocked position and tries to murmur his lines without making his face move. Acting! There is also the matter of his appearance. Not only does he resemble Mystery more than an ’80s rock legend, he’s also just a bit long in the tooth to be playing this role. Yes, even Miss Cruise (who turns 50 in July) is susceptible to the rigors of aging, as evidenced by the distractingly rubbery old-man skin he merrily flaunts throughout this almost entirely shirtless performance. You ain’t Madonna, bitch.

Also unlikely to repeat her past Oscar recognition is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays the moral-crusader wife of LA’s mayor (Bryan Cranston, very funny). But let me just say this: CZJ is glorious. She serves full ridiculous shoulder-pads-and-pleated-skirts drag from her very first moment, and she is a campy scenery-chewing delight. Channeling Joan Crawford and Kathleen Turner, this is the liveliest we’ve seen her since her Oscar-winning turn in Chicago. Baldwin, while miscast and physically awkward, at least shares expert comic chemistry with Brand, doing a softer Aldous Snow. Paul Giamatti is dependably perfect as Stacee’s sleazy manager, and Malin Akerman (hilariously and intentionally dressed like a stripper playing an uptight teacher moments before before unpinning her hair and ripping off her clothes) does her strongest and most uninhibited film work yet as a Rolling Stone reporter sent to uncover the real Stacee.

At its best, Rock of Ages is an undeniably entertaining guilty pleasure, with Shankman again demonstrating some of the breakneck energy he was able to sustain for the entirety of Hairspray. But unlike that film, Rock of Ages drags in sections, feeling a bit too long. And it certainly isn’t story or dialogue that inflates this thing into two-hours-plus territory; rather, it’s the insistence on performing nearly every chart-topping rock song from the Reagan-Bush years. The musical numbers are certainly fun, but they repeatedly slow the by-the-numbers “plot” to a standstill. Like Glee and other jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! and Across the Universe, it is written with the sole aim of making each onscreen action tie explicitly to a corresponding pop song. As fun as that can be, the relentless bombast ultimately leaves you willing to believe that “Don’t Stop Believing” was actually written about Drew and Sherrie if that means you can leave the theater.

Rock of Ages opens nationwide today.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gordon June 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

Seeing this musical on Broadway is one of my favorite Broadway experiences. It was super fun, and Constantine Maroulis was honestly spectacular in the lead role. So far, nothing anyone has said about the movie makes me want to see the movie.

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