For a movie that prides itself on celebrating music, Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages is oddly tone deaf. Based on the jukebox musical, the film should be a guyliner-and-leather infused version of Mamma Mia! — a light-hearted production with a vague and silly plot strung together clumsily by infectious songs that demand you sing along (this time by Poison, Def Leppard, Journey and Whitesnake instead of ABBA). You will no doubt want to sing while watching Rock of Ages but often only to drown out the thin and unimpressive voices or to distract yourself from the long, agonizing stretches during which characters attempt to speak some of the most insipid dialogue ever recorded, some of it far too earnestly. If you need nothin’ but a good time, you are going to have to look somewhere else.
To be sure, Mamma Mia! featured some heinous singing too — nobody has forgotten the horror of Pierce Brosnan attempting SOS — but when you have Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski and Stellan Skarsgard cavorting around the Greek isles, you’re bound to have a little fun. Rock of Ages struggles mightily to strike such notes of whimsy, but its humor is labored. Its best asset is Russell Brand (yes, that Russell Brand) as a club owner’s sidekick, who at least seems to understand this isn’t Shakespeare. Its ingenue leads (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) are as bland as those guys with guitars who kept winning American Idol a few years back. If these kids are rock ’n’ roll, I’m Sofia Vergara.
Hough plays Sherrie, a smalltown girl presumably living in a lonely world, who takes a bus from Tulsa to Hollywood to become a star. There, she meets Drew (Boneta), a bar back at the Bourbon, the hottest club on the Sunset Strip. Drew aspires to rock. Don’t worry if you forget; he’ll remind you many times.
Drew gets Sherrie a job at the Bourbon, whose disturbingly hairy owner (an ill-used Alec Baldwin) frets a lot about money, and love blooms among pitchers of beer and choruses of Talk Dirty to Me. But evil forces in the mayor’s office are scheming to shut down the club, and young love will soon be thwarted on the night of the big show: an appearance by the legendary Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a tattooed, barely coherent rock god more likely to be found under a pile of groupies than in front of a microphone.
This is Spinal Tap expertly covered most of the rock-star excess gags 28 years ago, but there’s still plenty of room for laughs here. Apparently, though, no one told Cruise, who plays Stacee Jaxx with unnecessary intensity; this is Rock of Ages, for the love of Mick Jagger, not Magnolia. It’s supposed to be a blast, not a chore. But every time Cruise appears on screen the film grinds to a halt, time stretches precariously before you, and your mind begins to wander. Isn’t it time for another number yet? Rock ’n’ roll may be self-indulgent, but not this self-indulgent.
Cruise’s musical numbers aren’t much better than his speaking parts, unfortunately; if you never realized how unique Jon Bon Jovi’s wail is, you will when you hear Cruise caterwauling Wanted Dead or Alive. Perhaps the producers should’ve have taken a chance on casting Brand as Stacee Jaxx; he’s wiry and adept at physical comedy, and at least he’d have had some fun.
Still, the mess isn’t entirely Cruise’s fault, although he never quite gets the rock star moves down. There isn’t a single well-choreographed, lively or memorable musical number in the entire film; some are downright embarrassing (Cruise and Malin Akerman’s I Want to Know What Love Is is excruciating). What should have been a hilarious duet with Baldwin and Brand doesn’t contain a single sight gag to save it. There’s a reason the best bit comes at the beginning, as bus passengers sing Night Ranger’s Sister Christian: They’re all sitting down, stationary, not jumping around in front of a camera that doesn’t quite know what to do with them.
Ah, but Sister Christian — how good to hear that old tune again. That’s all Rock of Ages really had to do: tap into the nostalgia that fuels hair metal lovers, crank it up and let the good times flow. Instead, it tests your patience. Guess every rose really does have its thorn.
Cast: Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Malin Akerman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J. Blige, Bryan Cranston.
Director: Adam Shankman.
Screenwriters: Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, Allan Loeb.
Producers: Garrett Grant, Carl Levin, Tobey Maguire, Scott Prisand, Adam Shankman.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 123 minutes. Sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, language. Opens Friday June 15 at area theaters.