Mark Reviews Movies

Rock of Ages


1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige, Malin Akerman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 6/15/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 14, 2012

Nostalgic is no way to go through life. It is, though, the only way Rock of Ages knows how to be.

Everyone here is nostalgic for a time through which they are, in the movie's world, currently living. It is 1987. Hair and glam metal are all the rage. Everyone is happy, and even if they're not at the present moment, happiness is just a realized dream, resolved misunderstanding, or song-and-dance number away. And there are plenty of songs for them to sing.

The movie seems to acknowledge its structural laziness in one scene. It's a transition after another character sings a rock song (Yes, that could be every scene in the movie except for the first). As the camera moves to find its next character, a piano riff plays on the soundtrack, and just at the moment our new focus is about to break into song, he's interrupted by another character.

Surely screenwriters Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo (who wrote the book for the stage musical upon which the movie is based), and Allan Loeb write the moment as a joke. The buildup to song, set up in the same manner as the rest, suggests they have. This is a musical that really only has the semblance of a plot as an excuse to have people sing hair anthems and power ballads of the '80s, so in a sly way, certainly this carmen interruptus acknowledges how strung-together the whole affair is.

We'd like to believe that, but when, after about five lines of irrelevant dialogue, another song starts up and our hero begins singing, that initial inference shatters and our patience with the near-constant stream of music for its own sake snaps. A sense of humor about itself is the least one expect from a musical that serves up hollow connections of situations and characters to songs with lyrics so non-specific that they could fit in almost anywhere else in the movie (Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Want to Know What Love Is" and REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" are really quite interchangeable, if you think about it for two seconds).

Instead, the jokes are broad. Characters use excessive amounts of hairspray to turn their locks into close approximations of helmets. A character begins a song while finishing up at a urinal. Women faint at the mere sight of a rock legend, who has descended into a perpetual state of eccentricity—a combination of drunkenness and vanity that makes every word he says sound like eternal wisdom from on high in his ears and utter nonsense to everyone else. In the movie's most desperate ploys for laughs, a baboon shows up to upstage the people.

The plot, as useless as it is, follows Sherrie (Julianne Hough), who takes a midnight bus from Oklahoma to come out to Los Angeles with the hopes of making it as a singer. Drew (Diego Boneta) is a barback at The Bourbon Room, a famous rock 'n' roll club; he also has dreams of making it as a rock star.

They meet and instantaneously fall in love but hit the skids when she comes out of the dressing room of Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), the big-time star, looking as if she's had sex with him. It was completely innocent, of course, but Drew gets leaves her without any discussion and joins forces with a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) to start his own career. Sherrie starts waiting tables at a local strip club, where the owner (Mary J. Blige) keeps insisting that Sherrie should dance if she wants to make real money. When Sherrie begins to worry that she's "ruined," the owner forgets that she was the one who kept telling Sherrie she should dance in the first place and tells the girl she'll only be ruined if she keeps dancing.

There are a couple of even less important subplots. One involves the club's owner (Alec Baldwin) and manager (Russell Brand) trying to figure out how to pay years of back taxes, and the other concerns Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of the mayor (Bryan Cranston), who wants to shut down The Bourbon Room in the name of moral superiority. To drum up support from the women's group at a church, she sings and dances to "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," which might foreshadow her real motive but makes no sense in the context of the scene.

Context for the rest of the movie is generic (Characters are happy, sad, or want to rock), and the songs wind up feeling the same. The choreography is haphazard (Strippers lazily shimmying, people walking toward the camera, etc.), and the actors' vocal tracks are over-produced to the point that everyone sounds like they're singing in the next room.

Individually, all of these shortcomings could be tolerable; combined, they form an unholy alliance of painfully forced kitsch. We know something has gone horribly amiss in Rock of Ages when the lyrics to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" ("The movie never ends / It goes on and on and on and on") sound like a threat.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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