Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rock of Ages

Directed by Adam Shankman.
2012. Rated PG-13, 123 minutes.

Diego Boneta
Kevin Nash

It is 1987 and The Bourbon Room is a legendary rock-n-roll club on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. It’s where aspiring singers like Sherrie (Hough) come for a job when they’re fresh off the bus from their small hometowns. After all, rock god Stacee Jax (Cruise) got his start there and is coming back for his last show with his band, Arsenal, before embarking on a solo career. It’s where Drew (Boneta) already works. He fancies two things: Sherrie and being the next Stacee Jax. The Bourbon is also in the cross hairs of Mayor Whitmore (Cranston) and his high-profile and overzealous wife Patricia (Zeta-Jones). They are looking to clean up the strip, starting with its most famous den of sin. The Bourbon is run by Dennis (Baldwin) and his right hand man Lonny (Brand) and it is going broke. These story lines swirl about as now classic, pop infused rock songs blare through the speakers.

Rock of Ages is a musical in the most traditional sense of the word. Anytime and any place, people break into song while whoever is around dutifully provides background vocals and perform choreographed dance routines. Some are better than others, but all of them are cheesy. Regardless, they’re often saved by the sheer power of the songs they’re singing. You pretty much can’t help singing along if you've ever heard any of them before which is to say you've probably heard them a thousand times. However, after each song is done, we realize that what we just ate is not particularly filling. On the other hand, this changes a bit when there are actual stage performances. Most of them have more genuine emotion and edge to them thanks, in large part, to Tom Cruise. He seems to be channeling Axl Rose, both on and off the stage. It’s a mesmerizing turn by Cruise that, in a better movie, might have earned him some love during awards season.

The rest of the cast delivers mixed results and are not aided by the hackneyed writing. Paul Giamatti is great because that’s what he always is. Thankfully, he only sings a couple of bars in the whole movie. Bryan Cranston is mostly just there cheering on his wife, or sneaking out of the room to cheat on her. Russell Brand does his best Russell Brand impersonation, take it or leave it. Alec Baldwin is not as good as he is in those Capitol One commercials, except for when he gets to sing. He’s obviously thrilled someone was willing to pay him to croon. Now, he’s not the X factor or anything, but he appears to be having so much fun belting out tunes it’s infectious. That writing let him and Brand down in a major way, though. Musicals are, by nature, contrived. However, the turn their relationship takes feels so forced it’s beyond absurd. It only becomes what it is in order to wedge in the song they sing together. In contrast to Baldwin, we have Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is very good for most of the movie but terribly botches her big number. Her singing is okay, I guess, but watching her stiffly mimic old Michael Jackson moves is painful.

Speaking of painful, that’s precisely the way to describe the work turned in by our two young lovebirds. Julianne Hough is pretty, but hardly compelling and seems to be replaceable by any number of twenty-something Hollywood blondes. Ditto for Malin Akerman as Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack. Believe it, or not, Diego Boneta fares even worse as Drew. His character struggles with being true to himself, and be a rocker, or do what his manager wants and front a boy band. Sadly, he’s not believable in either case. And more bad writing hurts him further. Early on, his character suffers from stage-fright. I get that even more suspension of belief is required to watch musicals than most other genres. Still, I’m hard pressed to accept that a guy whom I just saw give a rendition of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” in a crowded record store, while dancing in the aisles no less, is afraid to sing once someone puts a microphone in front of him.

The better movie takes place when the two youngsters are not on the screen. It has considerable charm, again, much of which is due to Tom Cruise’s eccentric rock star. The rest is because of the familiar and still catchy songs. These tunes are fun no matter what, but a little less so when performed by Hough and Boneta who come off like a pair of posers. Perhaps, it’s because there is noticeably less grunge to either of them than anyone else in the movie. So, in addition to their blank acting, they’re both just way too glossy. Finally, that writing is just flat lazy as things are resolved suddenly without the end result feeling earned. In summation: see Rock of Ages for the music and Tom Cruise, skip it if you don’t think that will be enough.

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