One doesn’t need to dislike hair-metal to have a distaste for “Rock of Ages”. They just need to want a cohesive story. Director Adam Shankman, whose distinguished past as a filmmaker includes “The Pacifier”, “Bedtime Stories” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2”, seems to have little interest in such a thing. This may not be entirely of his doing, considering that “Rock of Ages” is based on a long-running Broadway musical. To simplify the matter, it’s a film where young attractive people leap around belting 1980’s metal tunes. On occasion, an older, attractive person may step in to croon their own number, and even rarer, an unattractive older character given a moment to speak. It’s a sanitized look at a subculture whose characteristics lean towards the loud, the abrasive, and the out-of-control. It’s Guns-N-Roses by way of “High School Musical”, which is about as painful to watch as it is to type.
Center of “Rock of Ages” are two young, star-crossed lovers, Drew and Sherrie. Sherrie’s an Oklahoman teenager who arrives in Los Angeles with a case full of records and a heart full of dreams, both of stardom and of love. She finds a good counterpoint in the talented bartender Drew, and the two fall in love. Duh.
“Rock of Ages” seems to use these two as an introduction to the dozen other characters it wants us to get involved in. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand play the co-runners of frequent metal hotspot The Bourbon Room, Tom Cruise plays Stacee Jaxx, an extravagant, talented rock-star who plays at this venue, Paul Giamatti is his sycophantic manager and Malin Akerman a lovestruck journalist who pursues him throughout the film, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the conservative mayor’s wife whose attempts to shut the Bourbon Room down are the dramatic hook of the film, and Mary J. Blige….well, I took a 2-minute bathroom break and appear to have entirely missed her “top-billed role”. Heh. The film intercuts randomly between these people, who all seem to be scamming each other or falling in love with each other. The general stakes are the love between Sherrie and Drew, the Bourbon Room’s existence, and whether Stacee Jaxx will get a grip on his inflated ego and self-worth.
I can tell you that whatever it is Alec Baldwin did in this film, I was charmed and I smiled. This said, I don’t recall what exactly he pulled off. This sort of reserved praise is widespread for all of these immensely talented actors; making for a motley batch of performances with individual moments amusing enough for a smile but not for a memory. “Rock of Ages” is cinematic (and aural) cotton-candy, dissolving in the mouth as quickly as one can register pleasure.
The song-and-dance numbers are choreographed with skill and clarity, but then, one can’t be too sure how much is of the film’s doing or its source material. Aces to Tom Cruise and Russell Brand, two actors about as different as I can think of, who manage to bring the same sort of lively spunk to the film that it seems to miss. Cruise in particular taps into a bad-boy fury not seen since his turn as a contract killer in ’04’s “Collateral”, and watching him strut around with leather chaps, pet monkeys and endless booze is great fun.
The fundamental issue with “Rock of Ages” is that it’s far too in love with its own music. This brings the film down on many levels: for one, it will often sacrifice an emotional moment or human gesture for more bombast and Journey. True, this film is a musical, but it must also fulfill its role as a story. Sadly it just doesn’t click.
But secondly, any film built on such a subjective ground is doomed to divide. Music is as difficult a topic to agree on as any other, and having a 2-hour film with about 100 flat minutes of metal performances simply won’t click for most. “Rock of Ages” further digs its own grave by making these hard-rock tunes into ones of almost bubble-gum consequence, with about as much weight and heft as a Disney Channel musical. (And near identical faces, to boot.) Sure, the stars look like they’re having a blast, but they’re making “hard” songs “soft”, alienating both audiences in the process. It’s not a bad film or an offensive one, a mean-spirited one or a hard one to sit through. It’s just hackneyed and inoffensive, which in my eyes, may be the worst offense of all. C-