Written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb
Directed by Adam Shankman
Generally a provider of terrible studio product (Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier among others), Adam Shankman did direct 2007’s surprisingly good Hairspray, the big-screen version of the Broadway hit that was itself based on a John Waters effort. That film was aided by energetic musical numbers, a game cast on fun form, and a nice amount of wit, all succeeding to elevate the material beyond its arguable tackiness. Rock of Ages, his second Broadway adaptation, possesses almost none of that film’s positive qualities, and is a musical bereft of liveliness despite its endless barrage of noise.
While Hairspray had original songs deliberately crafted to tell a particular story, Shankman’s latest is constructed around a selection of generic anthems, chosen and crammed in due to their titles representing some broad emotion. Akin to the likes of Mamma Mia! and the as yet un-filmed We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical, though this one incorporates the music of various 80s hair metal and pop rock acts rather than a single band. The film’s story is very much like the shallow narratives of many of its songs, only without the courtesy of a similarly brief length.
Lasting two very plodding hours, the film is packed with constant multi-character song montages that rarely advance both plot or any sense of momentum, and many of its numerous players could easily have been cut from the proceedings to lend it at least a little focus. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ protester and Mary J. Blige’s den mother prove entirely superfluous, while talented actors like Bryan Cranston and Will Forte are misused in roles that are basically glorified extras. Paul Giamatti is thankfully as reliable as ever with an oily caricature part he’s mastered a few times before this, but Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand’s bar duo fail to provide much entertainment in their comedic asides; the latter is also saddled with a bizarre attempt at a Birmingham accent that is frequently distracting.
Like many of its song inspirations, the story, as unfocused as it is, revolves around two generic lovers, who are specific embodiments of the “city boy” and “small-town girl” of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”; that song is written by one of the characters throughout the film and eventually performed in its conclusion. The nominal leads don’t make for a terribly interesting pair, but Diego Bonata at least fares better than Julianne Hough. Seemingly limited to the same few facial expressions, weak in the attempts at dramatic moments, and prone to painful warbling throughout her songs, Hough can’t even provide a bland form of charm with her perky character and is instead an outright annoying presence to follow.
With most of the cast lacking, Tom Cruise provides the one saving grace as rock “god” Stacee Jaxx. A mix of enigmatic weirdness and a channeling of his Frank T.J. Mackey performance in Magnolia, Cruise is, up to a point, consistently fun to watch in a good piece of stunt casting. His solo musical number, a performance of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”, is the film’s standout moment, and also the one song that holds a candle to anything in Hairspray; it’s the lone energetic number worthy of Shankman’s choreography background, amid a collection of awkward execution or outright tedium. Cruise unfortunately gets a little tiresome the more Jaxx is forced back on screen, and into a romance with Malin Akerman’s journalist, one of the film’s various irritating subplots.
Rock of Ages, in its stage incarnation, may well have a more self-referential, playful quality fully aware of its silliness, as opposed to Shankman’s adaptation that generally takes its one-dimensionality quite seriously. In this film version, any wit is mostly drained and Cruise and Giamatti are the only bright sparks amidst the seemingly never-ending slog.
— Josh Slater-Williams