‘Rock of Ages’ a bland, overworked stab at kitchsy fun
Often, we assume that when actors are visibly enjoying themselves in a movie, it’ll translate to an equally good time for the people watching in the theater. Though there’s almost no doubt that the ensemble cast of Rock of Ages, an adaptation of the popular Broadway jukebox musical, is having fun, almost all of the infectious joy stays bottled on the screen, rarely leaking outward to the audience. Despite some admittedly goofy or deliberately strange performances, Rock of Ages is hampered by two bland romantic leads, excessive Auto-Tuning that makes the singing sound like aural oatmeal, and a director whose camera doesn’t know when to stay still.
Rock of Ages, set in Hollywood in 1987, has a shoestring plot that combines many hoary conventions—small-town girl comes to the big city to be in show business, hopeful young man wants to be famous, uber-popular star feels lonely and needs to return to his roots, rebellious outsiders clash with the establishment, and so on—as an excuse for the actors to belt out various rock standards of the 1980s. The ostensible leads, the small-town girl (Julianne Hough) and hopeful young man (Diego Boneta), are meant to tie everything together, with their love being the connective thread upon which the subplots hang. But Hough and Boneta, both attractive enough, are empty shells, and so are their characters, whose issues could be resolved if they were honest to each other. The script, by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo (who wrote the Broadway show) and Allan Loeb, would rather overcomplicate their situation.
Director Adam Shankman is shrewd enough, at least, to fill the supporting cast with plenty of talented and game actors. Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones play an overzealous candidate for mayor and his wife, who want to take down rock music at all costs; though they’re underused (and seeing Walter White get spanked is a bit awkward), the two rip into their scenes with brio. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand play the owner of the rock club at the film’s center and his right-hand man, respectively. Their subplot is the most tossed-off and pointless, but the duo provide enough comic relief to counterbalance the vacuousness around them. Paul Giamatti, who’s better than this movie, plays a scheming manager. On the one hand, he plays a good straight man to his client’s pet monkey. On the other hand, he’s playing straight man to a monkey.
Last but not least, there’s Tom Cruise, playing Stacee Jaxx, the rock star to end all rock stars (and considering the character is apparently the originator of songs by Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, among others, that’s a fairly literal label). Cruise is, as always, visibly determined to get every step right and not make a false move. Maybe some will buy him as an outrageously over-the-top sex symbol, but it feels awfully forced. Our introduction to Stacee, after he’s built up as reclusive and cartoonishly strange, is fairly humorous, but the more he’s on screen, the more the comedy falls flat. Cruise is one of our more charismatic movie stars, but it’s rare that he can come across as loose on screen. His typical fierceness and intensity overshadow the laid-back weirdo he’s playing.
Oh, and then there’s his singing, which is rendered unremarkable thanks to the heavy dose of Auto-Tune applied to his voice (and everyone else’s). Auto-Tune is supposed to eliminate flaws in singing, but because it’s so widely used these days, it has the effect of turning a person’s voice into formless mush. None of the singing—even Baldwin and Giamatti are providing their voices here, thankfully for just a few minutes—is notably bad or good, it’s just…there. The songs in the film, from “Don’t Stop Believing” to “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” are memorable and beloved to many. But the film’s versions are instantly forgettable.
The last, and most galling, problem with Rock of Ages is Shankman’s directing style, best described as impatient. Each musical sequence, whether it’s a short interlude or an extended number, has an overabundance of quick cuts. Each bit of important dialogue, from hearing that a waitress has quit to describing an important financial deadline that’s right around the corner, is as rushed as can be. Shankman feels less like a director who assumes the audience is restless, and more like a child at Halloween who decides that instead of eating some candy now and saving the rest for later, he’ll gobble it all down instantly, damn the consequences. Thus, Rock of Ages feels overly fast-paced in the moment despite dragging as a whole.
If you harbor nostalgia for teased hair, questionable and colorful fashion trends, and the popular rock bands that defined the 1980s, you could see Rock of Ages. Or you could go to your dresser (or to your local party store if you don’t have the accessories at home), get glammed up, meet with your friends, and head over to the local karaoke bar. Instead of hearing actors take a spin at crooning “Wanted Dead or Alive” or “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” try singing them yourself. If nothing else, you’ll probably save a few bucks.