Any way you want it? Not quite. Try as it might, ‘Rock of Ages’ never quite finds the right rhythm.
Like soft porn, Rock of Ages teases our pop culture erogenous zones but never really rises to the occasion. Oh, it tries, and the film can be fun—it’s not that hard to fall in love with the spirited ’80s song list here, after all—but ultimately, it’s a clunky, lugubrious mess, and you find yourself more interested in watching this musical train actually wreck right before your eyes than caring about the principal players on board. (Grease 2 comes to mind; see also 2011’s Footloose reboot.)
And then there’s this bit of news for hungry pop culture beasts—those who love to elevate stars into, well, stardom, and then horribly strip them of it later: Tom Cruise is the best thing in Rock of Ages. As Stacee Jaxx, the emotionally turbulent, egocentric and liquored-up headliner for the rock group Arsenal, he so perfectly embodies an amalgam of Dennis DeYoung by way of Steven Tyler with a retro dash of ’80s Bret Michaels tossed in for good measure. Better still, the man has singing chops. Cruise keeps most of the movie afloat and much of the plot, as many may already know, revolves around his appearances at the famous The Bourbon Room on Hollywood’s frivolous Sunset Strip.
About that … it’s the portal we find small town/new girl in town Sherrie (Julianne Hough of Dancing With the Stars and the embarrassment known as Burlesque) drifting into and quickly nabbing a job, thanks to floppy-haired future beau Drew (Diego Boneta). Alec Baldwin plays the beleaguered club’s owner, Dennis; his right-hand (and later hand-job) man is Lonny (Russell Brand). Dennis hopes that Jaxx’s appearance will help save the club from financial ruin, but the club owner has other obstacles.
Enter the mayor’s wife, played by (a surprisingly under-used) Catherine Zeta-Jones who, as amped-up as she appears here, fails to outrun the Red Bull. Wait, since we’re dripping in the ’80s here, make that Coke II (the soft drink, people, the soft drink). The woman wants to clean up the Strip and ruin Jaxx. Paul Giamatti plays Jaxx’s slippery manager, and Mary J. Blige comes along for the ride, showing up far too late as Justice, the matriarch of a strip club in which Sherrie eventually finds emotional refuge. Malin Akerman offers a fine turn as a Rolling Stone reporter desperate for a Jaxx interview.
It’s all that and about 20 ’80s songs you can’t really hate—although Extreme’s ’90s hit “More than Words” is in there for some reason. Cruise does wonders performing hits like “Paradise City,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” (the latter two with Akerman). Zeta-Jones is a hoot both vocally and with the choreography for a rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and Boneta isn’t that bad either, crooning the chart-toppers “Juke Box Hero” or “I Wanna Rock.” As in the popular Broadway musical, some of the songs are cleverly mashed together (“Sister Christian”/ “Just Like Paradise”/ “Nothin’ But A Good Time” and “We Built This City”/ “We’re Not Gonna Take It”) but the real trouble with Rock of Ages is that is never quite knows if it should be more camp or fairy tale, and much of that can be blamed on the screenwriters.
Written by Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb and Chris D’Arienzo—who also penned the more inviting stage outing—the trio didn’t seem to realize that if they really wanted us to walk out of the theater swooned (Hairspray, Chicago and Mamma Mia to a lesser degree) then they have to give us characters with even a little depth; people we can care about. A TV show like Glee (even Smash) manages to do even that. Some of the original Broadway story was reworked here, too. There’s nothing wrong with revamping something for the big screen, but it’s vital to be creatively discerning and know when to cut the excess. (Perhaps they were thinking about ’80s hair.)
Director Adam Shankman, who so wonderfully managed to trim down Broadway’s “Hairspray” for the big screen, doesn’t work well with all that excess here. As a result, we find ourselves watching a big, bold karaoke show that can’t find the right pacing. Beyond that, the surprising (or not) dismal casting choice of Hough—Ariel in 2011’s Footloose and all flair with nothing really to share—doesn’t give us a leading lady we can root for. (To be fair, the script doesn’t give her much, either.) Still, Hough is one of our new-century popularity “stars,” a pretty-on-the-outside/underdeveloped-on-the-inside entertainment industry collage. Think back to the ’80s and how brilliant somebody like then-newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer was, for instance, and realize just how much the current culture is willing to settle for less. These seem to be the kind of actors Hollywood loves to use as frosting for the many empty-calorie cakes it now bakes. (Not convinced?
Hough stars opposite Josh Duhamel in the next Nicolas “ka-ching” Sparks vehicle.)
Oh, why so mean, you ask? This is an ’80s romp. Have some fun, man. Come on … feel the noise.
I did. It gave me a headache.
Rock of Ages
★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough, Paul Giamatti and Mary J. Blige. Written by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb. Rated PG-13. 123 minutes.