Rock of Ages
The Poison hit featured on the soundtrack promises "Nothin' but a Good Time." If only.
Basically, a Mamma Mia! with '80s hair metal in place of ABBA, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical wrapped in vinyl nostalgia that has been playing to modest but steady business on Broadway for the past three years. But the headbanger party owes some of its notoriety to Poison frontman Bret Michaels getting accidentally brained during a number from the show at the 2009 Tonys. Nobody gets clobbered in the New Line movie, but perhaps director Adam Shankman should. He succeeds in draining most of the fun from a vehicle that was all about winking at its flagrant cheesiness.
Shankman did a serviceable job on New Line's 2007 screen redo of Hairspray. But he was handed songs crafted expressly to tell a story, not generic anthems shoehorned into a jokey construct. The director has not found a way to translate the musical's affectionately mocking humor to film. Shankman lacks a light touch. Only when the invaluable Russell Brand is onscreen -- playing a variation of his Get Him to the Greek character with a Nikki Sixx makeover -- does this bloated, gratuitously star-laden rethink come close.
The main attraction no doubt will be Tom Cruise in another stunt performance to pair with his Tropic Thunder role. First seen in bejeweled leonine codpiece, assless chaps and elaborate ink, emerging from beneath a blanket of hot groupies, he channels Axl Rose as Stacee Jaxx, an out-of-control rock god. The outrageously egomaniacal characterization should be a hoot, but in truth, Cruise's quasi-mystical sozzled intensity gets wearisome. There's just too much of him. Instead of one great showcase number (Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive"), he gets a string of them. And in the Glee era of Auto-Tune, even his vocal prowess barely registers as a novelty. A role that should have been a tasty extended cameo instead has been built up to crowd the headliners.
Those nominal leads are Sherrie (Julianne Hough), an Oklahoma girl fresh off the Greyhound in 1987 L.A., dreaming of stardom as a singer, and Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rocker working as a barback at fictitious Sunset Strip music venue The Bourbon Room. Embodiments of the small-town girl and city boy from Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," Sherrie and Drew sing sweetly and make a cute pair of lovebirds, but they're bland.
Running parallel to their story is the effort of philandering mayor Mike Whitmore (a misused Bryan Cranston) and his family values-crusading wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to shut down the club. Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), Stacee's unscrupulous manager, and Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) fill out the cast and a plodding script that takes two long hours to tell a thin boy-meets/loses/wins-back-girl story. Like the stage musical, the clash between Strip denizens and conservative zealots climaxes in a musical duel that repurposes Starship's "We Built This City" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" for the respective causes. But there's insufficient momentum for the conflict to be more than perfunctory.
Zeta-Jones appears stiff, while pros like Giamatti and Baldwin are wasted. Giamatti's role relies for humor on '80s wardrobe crimes, and Baldwin is only able to show glimmers of his usual sly comic spark in moments with Brand as his club technician Lonny. In the stage production, Lonny served as narrator, and given that Brand is easily the film's best asset, the diminished role is a mistake.
The production design does a solid job of re-creating 1980s Sunset Strip sleaze. But Rock of Ages neither evokes an authentic feeling to celebrate the era nor spreads much joy making fun of it. Instead, it just drones on like a limp cover version.
Opens: Friday, June 15 (Warner Bros.)
Cast: Julianne Hough, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti
Director: Adam Shankman
Rated: PG-13, 123 minutes
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