Friday, June 15, 2012

Old Time Rock and Roll: ROCK OF AGES

Rock of Ages is nothing but fake all the way deep down to its core. It’s without even the slightest nod towards genuine human emotion or dramatic interest with a plot stitched together from naked cliché and generational pandering, a whirlwind jukebox tour through 80’s rock set in a blender and ground up with that decade’s fashion and fads with a wink and snarl. That’s almost a compliment. It’s been put together by Adam Shankman, a choreographer-turned-director who, five years ago, made the delight of the summer with the film adaptation of Broadway’s Hairspray. But that movie had great music, memorable characters, and an enjoyable story. Rock of Ages, adapted from Chris D’Arienzo’s play by Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, has attitude and wall-to-wall music, but nothing else. Even the attitude is fake, conflicted about whether or not the production is taking a satiric point of view.

Set in what feels like an exaggerated theme-park approximation of 1987, the plot concerns a rundown Los Angeles rock bar run by an aging rock fan (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man (Russell Brand) who are besieged by the seemingly uptight mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his ultra-conservative wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who want to shut them down for reasons of back taxes and morality, respectively. But that all takes a back seat to the two-pronged central narrative, half of which is devoted to a dopey love story between aspiring singers (Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough) working at the bar. The other half is dominated by Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, a rock star teetering on the verge of becoming a has-been when he rolls in to give the club a much-needed boost of revenue by performing his final concert before going solo. It’s a dark, admirably weird performance that has Cruise writhing in leather and grinding against groupies. Whenever he enters a room, women faint and the soundtrack swells with guitars in electric palpitations. But the role is barely a caricature, let alone a parody, of an out-of-control rock star. And it’s certainly not a real character for Cruise to play.

Sure, Jaxx is a drunk, spaced-out eccentric with a pet monkey and various addictions, but there’s a point where it all starts to feel like an affectation. This could be a commentary on how show business can, has, and does exploit performers, transforming the talented into out-of-touch egos, churning them out for audiences’ adoration and idolatry, and then casting them aside for the next great thing. You might think that’s where this all is headed with the sweet kids (Boneta and Hough are definitely cute) primed to follow in Jaxx’s cautionary tale footsteps, but the plots take so many swerves from earnest to snarky and back again that it’s hard to know when and if the movie is ever getting around to developing a point of view. That’s the overarching problem with Rock of Ages. It’s both a dull celebration of empty show-biz provocation and commercialism and rejection thereof, all mixed in with these celebrities covering 80’s hits from Poison, Bon Jovi, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Slade, Foreigner, and more.

Lest it threatens to become nothing more than an energetic game of Rock Band with an all-star cast, the film swells to include an ensemble with which to propel the whole thing forward with incident upon incident, contrivance layered upon cliché and pushed along by miscommunications of the most unforgiveable kind, including one of those scenes where two characters talk around the very thing that would solve their problem leaving it unspoken as they go their separate ways. Paul Giamatti plays a slimy producer on the prowl for new talent while he milks every last dollar out of the talent he has. Malin Akerman plays perhaps the worst reporter in rock history (that’s saying something), showing up before the big show to interview Jaxx and then sticking around for some other scenes in the rest of the movie. And Mary J. Blige turns up to sing a number or two (and prove she has the best pipes of the ensemble) as the largely anonymous manager of a strip club. The most satisfying characters are ones we see only briefly in funny little cameos, like horror director Eli Roth as a silver-jumpsuit clad music-video director and Will Forte as a reporter covering Jaxx’s concert and Zeta-Jones’s protest, playing it as essentially his old SNL character Greg Stink.

It all adds up to a mess of simple plot and thin characters barely held together by its chain-reaction of musical numbers edited in a hacked-up fashion that is still somewhat more coherent than what Shankman and his co-conspirators do with the plain old dialogue scenes. It’s often hard to get visual bearings in this production. The group numbers are garbage, but the duets (between Boneta and Hough, Cruise and Akerman, and especially the one entirely unexpected one between Baldwin and Brand) are mostly fun. The cast is certainly energetic and the music is loud and carries with it a certain amount of 80’s charm, but the movie as a whole is an irredeemably junky work of confused kitsch that goes on, and on, and on, and on. By the time the “Don’t Stop Believing” finale gets to that song’s line about how “The movie never ends,” that sure sounded like a threat to me.

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