Somewhere in the midst of “Rock of Ages” Alec Baldwin—playing an aging hippie bar owner on Hollywood’s Strip in 1987—happily anticipates a night full of “ear-splitting music, sweat, and puke.” All three of these phenomena potentially await the viewer of this execrable movie.
It exemplifies the bad idea of the “jukebox musical,” i.e. a show built around pop songs rather than an original concept. (Think “Mamma Mia,’ of unfond memory.) This one has been on Broadway for a few years, I understand; not having seen it, I can’t comment on director Adam Shankman’s adaptation. But I can say with conviction that dancer/choreographer Shankman doesn’t seem to have a clue about filmmaking here.
Let’s begin with tone, the combination of attitude toward the subject and toward the audience. If this is supposed to be campy satire, then Shankman and three screenwriters collectively blow it, taking the subject—the rock music scene of the late ‘80s—way too seriously. (OK, so it often parodies itself, but that’s another topic.) If it’s intended as social commentary, uhh, what’s the comment? Is the target audience aging rockers waxing nostalgic over the bad ol’ days? Anyone’s guess is better than mine: my best friend and I left the theater muttering, “What was that all about?”
Oddly, a bunch of marquee Hollywood names join in this botched effort. In alphabetical order, Baldwin, Russell Brand, Tom Cruise, Paul Giamatti, and Catherine Zeta-Jones sadly let their considerable credentials lose some luster. A couple of relative rookies, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, are asked to carry the weight; they just don’t have the chops to make the thoroughly predictable script entertaining.
An amalgam of the boy meets/loses/regains girl and the young-unknown-makes-good formulae, the plot has lost most of its tread since the ‘20s. (If you want to see how to concoct this blend masterfully while doing homage to the tradition, rent the DVD of “The Artist.”) Hough plays Sherrie Christian, fresh off a bus full of singing passengers, dumped onto the Strip where she promptly gets her suitcase stolen. (It must have been full of vinyl LP’s, because she turns up in a different dress in the next scene.) Luckily, a handsome young would-be singer (Boneta) helps her land a waitress job at the club where he works, The Bourbon Room. They both eagerly await the appearance of rocker Stacey Jaxx (Cruise), an Axl Rose knockoff whom we first see in a jeweled codpiece and backless chaps. This could be either the high or the low point of the movie, depending on your tastes.
Zeta-Jones and Giammati, an Oscar winner and nominee, respectively, play stereotype characters, wasting their talents on bad lines and lame humor. Cruise sings more and better than in “Risky Business,” but he overacts his role, bringing what momentum the film develops to a grinding halt whenever he takes the screen. Baldwin, wig and all, should just be ashamed of himself.
For me, the only sporadically amusing scenes were those featuring Brand as Baldwin’s assistant (and closeted lover). Unfortunately, his lines are the only ones that pass for wit, a bad sign if this was intended to be a comedy. The movie is wildly under-rated “PG-13,” but some of the vulgarity should embarrass your average 13-year-old. I suppose it’s meant to shock, but it comes off as banal and tedious, as does much of this over-long, over-inflated bomb.