With Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Tom Cruise. Written by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb. Directed by Adam Shankman. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language). 123 minutes.
1980s fetishists will gather their friends and families and pilgrimage to “Hairspray” adapter Adam Shankman’s mighty windbag of a movie musical ROCK OF AGES, and because they will have before the night is through spent close to the cost of a ticket to the Broadway version of the show, they will convince themselves that the movie is much better experience than it actually is.
Los Angeles, 1987. We meet the wholesome, just-off-the-bus Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) at the start of her Hollywood adventure, before her clean Oklahoma lungs become smog-sullied husks and her dream of becoming a singer is flecked with the desperate tears wrought by the realization that she is not a unique snowflake and must compromise her vision and morals in order to eat. Within minutes of setting foot on terra not-so-firma, she meets cute the dreamy Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), and just as quickly as they fall in love, a misunderstanding tears them apart and they go their separate ways. Meanwhile, rock god Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and his hair metal band Arsenal are playing their farewell show at the famous Sunset Strip rock haven The Bourbon Room. Jaxx is at a personal crossroads, the show marking the start of his solo career. But will the honest words of beautiful Rolling Stone writer Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) cut Jaxx to the quick and bring him to realize that he is a giant wiener who will never grow as an artist or a person until he learns how to stop being a giant wiener? Will Sherrie and Drew french kiss and make up? Will any character in the story be physically unable to communicate even the most minor of emotions without singing about it? Will we use far too many rhetorical question marks in the course of explaining the plot?
The danger of Frankensteining pre-existing songs in an attempt to tell a new story is substantial, and compounded with the project’s creators’ lazy dependency on blind nostalgia for a decade that was only slightly less of a corneal sandblasting than the 1970s was, leads “Rock Of Ages” off the well-lit Boulevard and into the seedy back alleys of just-press-play storytelling. Add to that the fact that the multiple story lines seem to have been edited in a Cuisinart and in deference to a maximum song count, not servicing some characters, like Catherine Zeta-Jones’s smarmy Tipper Gore-alike Patricia Whitmore, for so long as to allow the audience to forget about them entirely.
Musically, many of the choices in this “Glee” for grown-ups are questionable, with not a lot of thought having gone into pairing them with the appropriate scenes. While some – like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” – do capture the spirit of this pre-Grunge time and place when girls would be girls (and so would the boys), thrice as many are minor, peripheral or just square pegs. Soft rock favorites like Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart,” Starship’s “We Built This City” and Foreigner’s seminal power ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is” (despite its hilariously ironic use) just don’t belong here. The song track, which includes 26 cuts (plus some atmospherics like Warrant’s “Heaven” and Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” that should have displaced some of the 26 as musical numbers) is like a mammoth mix tape made by a child who has just discovered how to tape songs off the radio, a crappy K-Tel compilation we begrudgingly buy for a half a handful of hits.
The movie, with all its its plucky Judy & Mickey “let’s-put-on-a-show-and-save-the-neighborhood” spirit and largely Auto-Tuned lack of panache, just plain lacks balls. However, that is not to say that there is not some of it on display. Cruise nails the unsupervised brat rock star, owning every scene as would an alley cat spraying-down the drapes in every room he enters. He does all his own singing, and apart from (wicked out-of-place) professional Mary J. Blige, his pipes are the toppermost. To a lesser extent, macho men Alec Baldwin (as club owner Dennis Dupree) and Russell Brand (as his assistant Lonny) bring a solid running thread to an otherwise scattershot affair, with their increasingly homoerotic Laurel & Hardy routine bringing some needed relief to the tedium. Leads Hough and Boneta are the very definition of milquetoast, obviously having been hired for their looks and not any depth they might bring to their respective roles.
Blinders off, this song-heavy, wildly uneven hodgepodge is a never-ending drum solo, a well-intended but mostly clueless and sideways tribute to the decade that christened the MTV Generation. (The 2001 Mark Wahlberg movie “Rock Star” did a far better job at all that this movie attempts.) Like a music video in desperate search of a concept, “Rock Of Ages” is the cab driver that takes us for just-off-the-bus rubes, promising us a definitive tour of the times but instead giving us a $100 cab ride around a weary block we have seen too many times.•••