Movie Review: Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough as Sherrie, Diego Boneta as Drew in "Rock of Ages"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Just for fun, let’s compare the 1988 music video of David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” crammed with such visual wonders as an airborne surfboard, mountain climbing and Roth’s iconic high kicks, with brilliant musician Steve Vai performing blistering leads on a heart-shaped, triple-neck guitar … to Julianne Hough’s sweet ingénue Sherrie, crooning that same song as she walks down a cartoon candy-colored version of the Sunset Strip, circa 1987. Similarly, let’s compare director Adam Shankman’s 2007 rendition of Hairspray, witty and delicious, with knock-out performances … to Shankman’s 2012 Rock of Ages, a tepid encore at best. With a feeble script, uninspired choreography and songs that are solely covers, cobbled together from the glam-rock power bands of the ’80s, what – other than Tom Cruise’s portrayal of a dissipated rock god – makes Rock of Ages an original?

The short answer: Nothing. Not Alec Baldwin, doing his best to deliver hackneyed lines, sporting a gray wig that may well have been soaking in a pail of fetid water since 1987. Not Russell Brand, who tries to lift up the script singlehandedly by mumbling little jokes, barely audible, under his breath. Not Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing the over-the-top, anti-rocker zealot and wife of Bryan Cranston’s mayor. And certainly not Mr. Cranston who, until this point of his career, seemed incapable of turning in a poor performance (triple Emmy winner, Breaking Bad). But for some inexplicable reason, Shankman takes Cranston down buffoon alley. And when we witness a consummate actor served so poorly … the blame must boomerang back to the filmmakers.

The film’s plot, such as it is, hearkens back to hundreds, if not thousands of retreads. A talented young girl with stars in her eyes hops a bus for Dreamtown, U.S.A. She meets a nice, formless fellow who’s got big plans of his own. A few rough tumbles await them but fate will ultimately shine down on these two kids because, well, it’s Hollywood, gosh darn it, where all our wishes come true.

Given today’s Glee-like fervor, in which cover is king, it must have seemed a no-brainer to the producers to recycle the music that appeals to the huge demographic that dearly loves the late ’80s arena-rock sounds of Twisted Sister, Foreigner, Journey, Def Leppard, Poison, et al. – hoping that nostalgia would carry the day. But it’s a funny thing about exploiting this particular nostalgia: The creators have to either bring something new to the turntable, or construct a parody/pastiche/spoof that smacks of such high-glam brilliance, that the audience will want to virtually flick its Bic lighter in frenzied approval. Here, since Rock of Ages fails to truly rock, we might prefer to stay home, gather ’round the high-def widescreen and watch MTV reruns until our collective big hair falls out.

Not to say that some of the actors didn’t give their all. The appealing Hough (2011′s Footloose, Burlesque) has a voice that doesn’t quit, and despite the clumsy writing, she manages to stay afloat even in the deadliest scenes. But playing the busboy/struggling musician/love interest, while newcomer Diego Boneta is fine during his musical numbers, he’s clearly uncomfortable when called upon to recite lines. (Highly ironic, since the character confesses to the exact opposite.)

Mary J. Blige is a powerhouse voice in need of a character (couldn’t the trio of writers throw her a bone?). Paul Giamatti as the oily manager has to rely on a piece of chewing gum and an eggplant-sized cell phone for a character, and Malin Akerman is reduced to the oft-used gimmick of the hottie hiding behind her big eyeglasses.

Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in "Rock of Ages"

But Tom Cruise does indeed save the day. He sings exceedingly well, struts even better, but it’s his superstar cocksman’s attitude that brings life to this enormously loud, empty piece. Why the seemingly off-kilter choice of Cruise? We keep forgetting that with or without a script to carry him, he can act, delivering worlds with a look, a walk, a pose. The onetime pretty boy continues to show up in these wild character roles (Magnolia, Tropic Thunder), reminding us that he simply can’t be dismissed.

That said, Shankman & Co. could have had done so much more with this movie. We get a few half-hearted stabs of humor, such as Will Forte’s harried news reporter rushing up and back between two angry groups of protestors shouting out a duet of “We Built This City” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Or a love ballad between two unlikely partners crooning “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

However, at the end of this ’80s day (with a respectful nod to Pat Benatar), Shankman does not hit us with his best shot. We’ve seen his best shot … and this one doesn’t even come close.

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Rating on a scale of 5 fumbling Guitar Heroes: 2

Release date: June 15, 2012
Directed by: Adam Shankman
Written by: Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb
Based on the musical “Rock of Ages,” book by: Chris D’Arienzo
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Mary J. Blige, Bryan Cranston, with Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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