Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Movie Review: Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages **
Directed by: Adam Shankman.
Written by: Justin Theroux and Chris D'Arienzo and Allan Loeb based on the musical by Chris D'Arienzo.
Starring: Julianne Hough (Sherrie Christian), Diego Boneta (Drew Boley), Tom Cruise (Stacee Jaxx), Alec Baldwin (Dennis Dupree), Russell Brand (Lonny), Bryan Cranston (Mike Whitmore), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Patricia Whitmore), Paul Giamatti (Paul Gill), Malin Akerman (Constance Sack), Will Forte (Mitch Miley), Mary J. Blige (Justice Charlier).

By its very nature, a movie like Rock of Ages is going to be cheesy. You can’t make a movie of wall to wall 1980s rock ballads and not make a cheesy movie. The plot of the films is purposefully built on clichés – the small town girl getting off the bus in L.A. with dreams of stardom, the shy, but brilliant young singer who sells out for success, the slime ball rock agent, the scuzzy club beloved by all, the hypocritical mayor and his wife trying to shut the club down for promoting immorality and the aging rock God, drowning in a sea of excess. And yet none of that means that Rock of Ages couldn’t have been a fun guilty pleasure – and there are moments in the film that hint at what fun it could have been. The problem is that the tone of the films and the performances are all over the map.

The two leads in the movie are that small town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and that sensitive, shy rock singer wanting to make it big, Drew (Diego Boneta). Over course they fall in love in a whirlwind romance, and of course they split up due to a misunderstanding, and of course they will eventually get make together after they’ve gone through their separate journeys of humiliation – her as a stripper and him as a member of a boy band. Both are pretty and photogenic and can carry a tune, but neither ever really to connect to their roles. It’s as if everyone thought that simply slapping on some bad ‘80s clothes and have silly haircuts would suffice.

Some of the supporting characters fare better – but not many. Alec Baldwin can be hilarious, but I’m not sure he is even trying here. He sleepwalks through his role as the bar owner. His sidekick, Russell Brand, is at least entertaining, but he is the same here as he is every time you see him. And their “love ballad” epiphany is quite simply an embarrassment for all involved – neither can sing in the least, and perhaps that’s supposed to be the joke, but if it is, it falls flat. Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones seems like she’s off in her own little movie, as she goes wildly over the top as the moralistic mayor’s wife. It may not have been as bad if others had followed her lead, but she is mostly surrounded by bland, boring characters (including Bryan Cranston, completely wasted as her husband), so she ends up sticking out like a sore thumb. Paul Giamatti does nothing to breathe life into the most clichéd character in a film full of them. The only problem I had with Mary J. Blige’s supporting role is that she is the one person in the movie who is actually a great singer – so while many of the actors in the movie are fine singers, they sound out of place next to such a strong voice.

Far and away, the best performance in the movie is by Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, the aging rock God who has alienated everyone around him. You need a star of his magnitude to play the role, and be willing to poke fun of themselves in the process and Cruise is game. He’s even a pretty good singer, but it is his stage presence that makes his performances work. He elevates his scenes – and drags the pretty Malin Akerman along with him, who is actually quite good, in a role that is badly underwritten.

Rock of Ages is not a painful film to sit through – unlike Mamma Mia, which, it must be said, at least fully embraced its cheesiness and got the entire cast to buy in, which didn’t make it any less horrible for me but does show what Rock of Ages needed to do to be successful. Perhaps I just hated Mama Mia because I hate Abba, while I can at least appreciate the rock songs of the `80s that make up the majority of Rock of Ages running time. Yet, Rock of Ages, directed by Adam Shankman, is a complete mess. Shankman may not be the best filmmaker, but given his last musical was Hairspray, which was enjoyable fluff from beginning to end, Rock of Ages has to be considered a disappointment. Even the scenes I did enjoy, I did against my better judgment. We get so few musicals these days, we deserve a hell of a lot better than Rock of Ages.

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