Rock of Ages (Shankman, 2012)

The most surprising thing about Rock of Ages is that I was prepared to like it.

Not right away, and certainly not walking into the theater. But there was a point at around the fifteen to twenty minute range where I was smiling at the innocent chemistry between Julianne Hough’s Sherrie Christian and Diego Boneta’s Drew Boley. When they sing “I’ve Been Waiting (For a Girl Like You)” underneath and around the Hollywood sign I found myself rooting for their relationship and believing that they actually were young, enthusiastic lovers with big dreams, aching for their one break rather than professional actors playing the same.

And then Stacee Jaxx showed up and the spell was broken never to be recaptured.

I should be quick to add that Tom Cruise is not the problem. For all his polarizing off-screen antics, Cruise is tremendously talented, and I honestly can’t imagine another actor in Hollywood doing this role and not looking self-consciously ridiculous. Johnny Depp? Brad Pitt? Ryan Gosling? At issue in the Jaax story line is not so much the issue of miscasting. (Though, Alec Baldwin seems wrong, and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s screen persona, with her considerable beauty and facility at singing and dancing, is as far from a repressed, anti-musical Christian zealot as one could envisage.) Rather, the problem with the “B” story is that it doesn’t know it is the “B” story; it takes us away from the lovers for too long, and it is essentially a one-joke premise/character study that repeats rather than develops.

I don’t doubt that some people will be as befuddled at my focusing on story as I am by the film’s disregard for it. Rock of Ages is about the music, ultimately, and, shallow and superficial as much of it is, it is the music of my teen years–which makes it hard to like the way many of the songs get chopped up into bits, invoked rather than truly performed. Paradoxically, though, although many of the songs get truncated, the film still feels about twenty minutes too long, and it doesn’t help that the young lovers get separated by sitcom-like misunderstandings that feel more designed to keep them apart until the finale than to actually make the audience care about a relationship that initially seemed sweet and authentic but ends up being hijacked by a single misplaced glance.

One wonders if this might be a movie that does better on DVD than in the theater. The raunchy parts are a bit too crass and explicit to recommend for the tweeners (and their parents) who might identify with and like the young love story. The kids falling in love are a little to slow and dense for those who might appreciate the pointed barbs at boy bands or enjoy the deliciously all-in performances of Cruise and Malin Akerman (as a Rolling Stone reporter writing a story about him). There is a moment, too, that struck me as more homophobic than daring. If it had some point other than to invite us to laugh at how ridiculous it is that gay people, you know, exist (and how funny it is when straight people pretend to be gay, because their presumed discomfort allows us to laugh at our own without really questioning it), then I missed it.

Towards to end of the film, Zeta-Jones’s Christian┬áprotesters square off with Russel Brand’s rock defenders. The former are singing “We’re Not Going to Take It,” the latter, “We Built This City (on Rock and Roll).”

“Wait! Wait!” my companion complained, “how can the squares be singing Twisted Sister and the cool guys be singing the lamest rock anthem in the history of the world? That’s just…wrong.” The whole film is like that, really. There are parts of it that are really enjoyable, but it’s never five minutes away from shooting itself in the foot.

 

 

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